Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Mike Faulkner

The Labour Party and Socialism


First Published: The Marxist, Vol. 1, No. 1, November-December 1966.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Sam Richards and Paul Saba
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THE LABOUR GOVERNMENT has been in office for nearly two years. Its record has disabused many of their initial hopes that Wilson might bring Britain a small step nearer to socialism. However, while criticism abounds, what real lessons have been learned?

At first there were a few measures of social reform – the abolition of Health Service prescription charges; a small increase in old age pensions; and a new Rent Act. But inheriting a 750 million balance of payments deficit, the Government accepted the defence of sterling as its major task. It took loans from the foreign central banks and the International Monetary Fund to replenish the reserves. Taxes and prices were increased and a credit squeeze imposed. Arms spending has been increased by 122 million to 2,120 million annually under the Labour Government although Wilson has tried, with perverted figures, to spread the idea that it has been cut. Wilson’s handling of the seamen’s strike was in accord with the Government’s general attitude towards the trade unions and the principle of collective bargaining. The denunciation of the unions and the attack upon them, with impending legislation designed to shackle them altogether, has gone hand in hand with the high-sounding rhetoric about an ’incomes policy’ and reveals the latter for what it is-the continuation of capitalist wage restraint. More recently all talk of a ’fair distribution of incomes’ has been replaced by an open wage freeze imposed with the blessing of the T.U.C. and the Labour Party Conference. The Labour Government’s measures amount to squeezing the workers for the benefit of British imperialism and to meet the requirements of the foreign lenders to whom they have put themselves in pawn.

In its foreign policy the Government has been even more subservient to the U.S. than its Tory predecessors. In the Vietnam war, patently a war of justified national resistance to foreign domination, Wilson has consistently supported the U.S. aggressors. In Malaya, British imperialist interests continue to be vigorously pursued, and the Government’s appeasement of the Rhodesian settlers leaves no doubt about its attitude towards the African liberation movement. The Government is completely identified with reaction against the progressive forces throughout the world. Nothing in its record is remotely ’progressive’. Everything is plainly in pursuance of the defence of monopoly capitalism and all its actions reveal the Government’s imperialist character.

Why has a Labour Government acted in this way? Is it, as some suggest, because the right wing holds the reins of power? Or is Wilson the prisoner of the international bankers and the White House and unable to behave otherwise? In fact there are much deeper causes for the Government’s performance.

To understand them we need to go beneath the surface of parliamentary politics and look closely at the kind of society we live in. How does capitalist rule operate in Britain today?

The British bourgeoisie describes our ’democracy’ as the highest form of human achievement in government, a form guaranteeing full rights to everyone with the state standing aloof as a beneficent arbiter watching over the affairs of the community in the interests of all. Our parliamentary system is characterised as the repository of the only true freedom through which all social ills can be eradicated, guaranteeing to the people the opportunity of re-shaping society as they choose.

The question of class power is not raised in this characterisation. Yet the question of class power is the crux. So long as illusions continue about the nature of our democracy, which is bourgeois democracy, real progress towards socialism in Britain is impossible. We need to examine the class realities behind the bourgeois democratic facade.

In all class societies there is one class that rules (dictates) over others. Capitalism is no exception whatever particular state-form may embody the rule (dictatorship) of the capitalists. In the highly developed industrial capitalist countries, the types of institution the bourgeoisie adopts depend on a number of factors-historical development, the balance of class forces, the level of consciousness and degree of organisation of the working class, the economic and political situation both national and international. In Britain bourgeois democracy has a long history. Parliament as an important political institution superseding the feudal monarchy was achieved in the seventeenth century. The bourgeoisie had gained considerable experience in the use of Parliament so that when the industrial revolution gave rise to the modern working class they were in a strong position to divert the workers’ struggles into ’safe’ channels.

Democratic Facade

So long as the working class movement was relatively weak, Parliament mainly reflected conflict between the landowning and the manufacturing sections of the ruling class. Later it became necessary to give Parliament a ’democratic’ facade in order to enmesh the workers within the capitalist state. Successive reforms of the franchise gave the vote to skilled workers (1867) and to semi-skilled workers (1884) but these concessions were made with the knowledge that the working class had lost the fervour of the Chartist days. Moreover, from 1870 onwards, state education was provided, partly to give the workers the literacy needed in an advanced industrial society but also to influence their ideology and turn them from any ideas inimical to capitalist rule. In the subsequent extensions of the franchise in the twentieth century one can see a similar approach. The bourgeoisie were not prepared to extend the franchise until they felt they were able to exercise ideological control over the workers. The modern British working class has grown up in this tradition of ’parliamentary democracy’ and its outlook reflects all the conditioning the bourgeoisie have taken so much trouble to implant.

Why do we regard bourgeois democracy as a form of capitalist rule? Because all the important elements of the state machine – the police and armed forces, the judiciary, Parliament, the organs for controlling financial and economic policy, the organs for exercising ideological influence-are shaped and dominated by the representatives of the capitalists. In bourgeois democracy the capitalists, in exercising their rule over the people, prefer to do so by persuasion and deception but are always ready, if these become ineffective, to resort to repression and force.

So long as challenge from the working class does not seriously put into question the stability of the system, bourgeois democracy is a form of government with considerable advantages to the capitalists compared with more openly dictatorial forms of rule. The relatively free and open exchange of information among sections of the ruling class which goes on through the press and public discussion and through the representative organs of government affords them the opportunity of selecting policies in their best interests after weighing facts and taking account of opinions.

Ins and Outs

Of course, side by side with the ’quality’ media which serve the bourgeoisie in this way are the ’mass’ media intended to bemuse the people. The existence of competing political parties (superficially offering different policies but identical in their acceptance of capitalism) creates the basis for the parliamentary game of ’ins’ and ’outs’ in which the people are kept quiet by being given the illusion but not the reality of choice. When they are disappointed with the performance of the ’ins’, they are consoled by promises from the ’outs’ – who, of course, perform quite differently from the way they promised once they themselves come to office. Thus Wilson, elected to end the ’stop-go’ of the Tories, himself enacts the most drastic version of this policy. So long as the workers can be involved in this ’in and out’ game and can be made to feel that this is all that politics is about, they are diverted from any fundamental challenge to the continued existence of the capitalist system and the state institutions through which the capitalist class rules.

To keep the thinking of the people in this mould, a vast ideological effort is carried on by the capitalists. The educational system, the press, cinema, radio, television, religion, a host of voluntary societies and all manner of social activities perpetuate a belief in bourgeois democracy; that is, promote faith in the democratic facade and conceal from the people the realities of capitalist rule behind it. Education in Britain is class education, and the system reflects the class structure of British society. The working class, in the main, receives an education inferior to that received by those de5tined for positions in the ruling class apparatus. The workers are ’educated’ to accept the ideas of imperialism with a view to turning them from class struggle and persuading them that their interests are identical with those of their own capitalists engaged in the exploitation of other peoples.

Bourgeois democracy contains a fundamental contradiction. As Lenin pointed out, while on the one hand it is the ’best’ form of rule for the capitalists, on the other it is the ’best’ form of bourgeois state within which the working class can marshal its forces for the overthrow of capitalism. The capitalists themselves recognise that bourgeois democracy contains dangers to their continued rule. Given a strong working class challenge, the capitalists have always in the past torn up their own legality and employed all measures necessary for preserving their power. There is no reason to suppose that they will not attempt to do the same in future. Thus, while appearing to offer the possibility of a ’legal’ transformation of society, the bourgeois democratic system is, in fact, designed to prevent this. Of course, the capitalists prefer to avoid resorting to open force. It is therefore important for them to ensure that the organisations of the working class are prevented from posing a threat to the continued existence of the system. They try to control the workers’ organisations directly and from within. Social democracy is a means to this end.

Class Collaboration or Class Struggle

Social democratic parties constitute a main line of defence for the ruling class. The forms such parties take differ from one country to another, but what is common in most advanced capitalist countries is the necessity to use social democratic parties for the continued functioning of bourgeois democracy. The main ideological characteristic of all social democratic parties is their commitment to bourgeois democracy and the parliamentary system, and their advocacy of class collaboration not class struggle. Social democrats, both right and left, deny the class character of the bourgeois democratic state.

Lenin, while arguing the need for the newly-formed Communist Party to affiliate to the Labour Party – for tactical reasons while preserving its own identity – was perfectly clear in his characterisation of the Labour Party. At the second Congress of the Comintern in 1920 he said:

Of course, for the most part the Labour Party consists of workers, but it does not logically follow from this that every workers’ party which consists of workers is at the same time a ’political workers party’. That depends on who leads it, upon the content of its activities and of its political tactics. Only the latter determines whether it is a political proletarian party. From this point of view, which is the only correct point of view, the Labour Party is not a political workers’ party but a thoroughly bourgeois party, because, although it consists of workers, it is led by reactionaries and the worst reactionaries at that, who lead it in the spirit of the bourgeoisie .... they systematically deceive the workers.

The development of the Labour Party during the first two decades of the Century occurred at a time of mounting class struggles, nationally and internationally, and its appearance on the political scene reflected the needs of British imperialism.

The Labour Party has had its militants and left wing but they have never been revolutionary. They have been wedded to reformism and democratic constitutionalism. If the implications of this have not always been understood by militants they certainly have been grasped by the ruling class.

Aneurin Bevan, in his book In Place of Fear, relates an account, given to him by miners’ leader Robert Smillie, of an interview between the leaders of the Triple Alliance and Lloyd George in 1919 to discuss the demands that the big three unions were making on the employers. He recounts how Lloyd George cautioned them against using strike action and asked them if they had weighed the consequences:

The strike will be in defiance against the Government of the country and by its very success will precipitate a crisis of the first importance. For, if a force arises in the state that is stronger than the state itself then it must be ready to take on the functions of the state, or withdraw and accept the authority of the state. ’Gentlemen,’ asked the Prime Minister quietly, ’Have you considered, and, if you have, are you ready?’ ’From that moment on,’ said Robert Smillie, ’we were beaten, and we knew we were.’

Bevan used this incident to illustrate what he considered ’the subjective attitude of the people to the existence of the franchise and all that flows from it’.

This commitment to bourgeois democracy has been and remains a characteristic of Labour’s left wing no less than of the right. Even a prominent present-day representative of the left like Konni Zilliacus remains essentially a gradualist, believing that capitalism will eventually be superseded by introducing ’more socialism into our democracy’. He told the Russians in 1956 that ’the process of socialising our economy would go on through a combined action, reaction and interaction of the Government and the Opposition’ CK. Zilliacus, A New Birth of Freedom, 1958).

From Left to Right

The careers of many notable left-wingers in the Labour Party hold some important lessons if we are to understand how social democracy works. From the beginning there have always been those who, starting their political life on the left, became prominent as severe critics of the Labour Party and Labour Governments. However, they moved steadily to the right as they climbed from the lower rungs to the higher positions in the hierarchy. Ramsay Macdonald himself was once the great hope of the left, and Shinwell came into Parliament from the Clyde full of fighting spirit. In the thirties prominent politicians such as Cripps and Strachey (the latter for a long time a self-proclaimed Marxist) made criticisms of official Labour policy which seemed quite fundamental. But in the 1945 Government they both emerged as loyal Ministers of the Crown and played their parts operating the most reactionary policies.

Wilson, as a member of the Bevanite group, was a leader of the left. Bevan himself moved from his earlier radical stance to become a staunch Gaitskell man in line for the Foreign Secretaryship. More recently we have seen the rapid volte face of former left-wingers such as Barbara Castle and Anthony Greenwood. Greenwood, a former Treasurer of the Movement for Colonial Freedom, as Labour Colonial Secretary, amended the constitution of British Guiana and ousted the progressive government of Cheddi Jagan. The pattern should dispel any illusions.

To recognise that the Labour Party left is not revolutionary is not to make it synonymous in all respects with the right. The right have always been ’the worst reactionaries’ but many workers who support the Labour Party sincerely desire to see the establishment of socialism, as they understand it, in Britain. It is not their lack of desire for socialism but the political line they follow that makes them supporters of capitalism.

There is wide disillusionment among the left today with the Wilson Government. To defend the sterling citadel of British imperialism the Government has taken exceptional measures which reveal in the most open fashion its imperialist character. The measures are exceptional because the situation itself is unprecedented, calling for desperate measures. The balance of payments crisis is a striking demonstration of the decline of British imperialism, which in the past two decades has been seriously weakened as a result of successful national liberation struggles and encroachments from rival imperialist powers. The more recent forms of neocolonialism have altered the form of exploitation while preserving much of its fruit.

British Imperialism in Crisis

Taking note of the weakening of British imperialism is a very different thing from conjuring it out of existence. This is a trick performed by such theorists of social democracy as John Strachey who argue that the Empire has really ceased to exist. British imperialism is still a powerful force continuing to exploit vast areas of the world. India and much of Africa, for example, although nominally independent, remain lucrative spheres of exploitation for the British imperialists.

It is because British imperialism still has so much to lose that it fights so hard to hold on. The preservation of its privileges is the essence of the foreign policy of all British governments. But there are strong pressures. After the second world war it became difficult to resist U.S. penetration. Weakened by the war and by the rising liberation struggles against them, the British capitalists faced severe balance of payments crises. The position never improved sufficiently to cover their overseas government spending and export of capital.

Since the end of the second world war the U.S. has emerged as the most powerful imperialist country. Successive British governments, Labour and Tory, have sought support from the Americans for the defence of Britain’s own imperialist positions, while at the same time being subjected increasingly to U.S. encroachments. Suez demonstrated conclusively that the British imperialists were no longer able to take a line independent of the U.S. British finance capital has come to accept subordination to and dependence upon the U.S. The Labour Government acts accordingly.

The course adopted by the Labour Government is aimed at preserving British imperialist positions while at the same time accepting the overlordship of the U.S. Britain’s weakened imperialist position in the last two years has made Labour go further along the path of subservience to U.S. imperialism than did the Tories.

Servility to Washington has indeed been the hallmark of this Labour Government. The junior partnership relationship with U.S. imperialism has become one of master and servant. The 1966 Defence White Paper revealed the extent of surrender to U.S. overlordship in the most sensitive area of state sovereignty, the armed forces.

Our assessment of the Labour Party has attempted to show that it is committed to the defence of British capitalism. The leaders of the Labour Party will never adopt policies opposed to the interests of capitalism. The Labour left is committed to bourgeois democracy and despite its criticisms, actually constitutes no serious challenge to the right wing leadership. Indeed, the left wing, by obscuring the realities involved in the fight for socialism, itself helps to maintain capitalism. This is its role objectively, whatever may be the aims and hopes of individual left-wingers and Labour Party supporters.

Reformism or Revolution

Socialism can be built only when the working class has taken state power from the capitalist class: that is, when there has been a revolution. Revolutions can be led only by revolutionaries. Only a party with a clear understanding of the nature of bourgeois democracy and committed to the overthrow of capitalism – that is, a Marxist party – can give the necessary leadership to effect such changes. The Labour Party is not such a party, nor can it ever become one. The Labour left is not such a leadership. Indeed, there is no solid grouping which deserves to be called the ’Labour left’. The ’Labour left’ constantly shifts and divides since it does not reflect any commonly accepted and consistent body of political principles.

The Labour Government pursues capitalist policies not because it is in the hands of the right wing, but because the Labour Party is itself a capitalist party whose role is to keep the present system in existence. Failure to understand this is failure to understand social democracy. Those who criticise Labour in office as though it were anything other than a capitalist party, who suggest that the obstacles in the way of ’real change’ to socialism come from the right wing leaders, help to deceive the workers and divert them along the old reformist paths. Throughout the history of the Labour Party there has been a distinct pattern in the political careers of erstwhile left-wingers such as Cripps and Strachey, Bevan and Wilson, Greenwood and Crossman. Today left wing social democrats who sit on the Government benches of Westminster have largely lost credibility with the politically conscious workers, and it is politicians outside the Labour Party, such as Gollan, Dutt and other Communist leaders generally, who keep alive the illusion that the Labour Party is once again being betrayed by the right wing leadership.

To help forward the real struggle for socialism it is not sufficient simply to profess belief in socialism or to pronounce oneself a Marxist. It is necessary to apply Marxism, not merely profess it. This means making a Marxist analysis and founding a policy upon it.

The question arises of whether a real revolutionary leadership exists in Britain today. Because this is a question of increasing concern to all militant workers and to all those who are beginning to understand the need for a Marxist alternative to social democracy we must, in conclusion, turn our attention to it.

Despite the claims by the Communist Party leadership since 1951 for the Party’s programme The British Road to Socialism, this document does not contain a Marxist analysis of British capitalism. It signally fails to make any attempt to analyse the Labour Party and social democracy in Britain. Instead, the Labour Party is presented in much the same light by the Communist leaders as it has always been by Labour’s left wing propagandists. ’A general election,’ says The British Road to Socialism, ’could return to Parliament a socialist Labour and Communist majority which, with the backing of the people, would begin to carry through a fundamental social change’. In a key passage the document goes on to say:

Using our traditional institutions and rights, we can transform Parliament into an effective instrument of the people’s will, through which the major legislative measures of the change to socialism will be carried.

Using the rights already won in the Labour movement’s historic struggle for democracy, we can change capitalist democracy, dominated by wealth and privilege, into socialist democracy where only the interests of the people count.

The Communist Party has consistently argued that its belief in the possibility of electing a socialist government and transforming Parliament in no way represents an abandonment of Marxist teachings on the state and revolution. Such a ’transformation’, it is claimed, would be a peaceful revolution; this perspective is based upon the ’creative’ application of Marxism to changed conditions in Britain. But analysis of the nature of British ’democracy’ and of the Labour Party show the unreality of all this. The Communist Party has abandoned Marxist theory on the vital question of the state. The British Road to Socialism is a detailed tactical blueprint for a hypothetical future situation. This is not Marxism. Marxism works out tactics only when they can be related to the existing real situation. This un-Marxist blueprinting by the British revisionists is aimed at turning the workers away from the principles and strategy of Marxism in the class struggle for the wresting of power by the workers from the capitalists.

In spite of all their attempts to defend The British Road to Socialism against the charge of revisionism, the leaders of the Communist Party, in producing this document, have joined those who have preached constitutional action through Parliament, with the Labour Party as a vehicle, as the way the workers can achieve their goal. The position of the Communist Party differs in no essential from that of the left wing of social democracy and contains the same erroneous assumptions about the nature of the capitalist state and the role of Parliament.

A Communist Party committed to the line of the British Road and the policy statements which have followed it, becomes nothing more than a left auxiliary of the Labour Party. Communist policy, instead of being based on Marxism, becomes another variety of social democracy.

What must be done in Britain? There must be continuous Marxist explanation and education. British politics and the nature of imperialism must be laid bare. All illusions about easy short cuts to socialism must be exposed. This is not a call for mere political talk. Theorising divorced from action is sterile. A revolutionary leadership cannot emerge without involvement in the struggles over, for example Vietnam and wages, that are taking place now. But Marxist theory there has to be if the best and most militant forces are to avoid dissipating their strength in disconnected and ultimately ineffective activities.