Paul Foot

Wilson – the man who murdered reformism

(September 1968)

From Socialist Worker, 27 September 1968.
Reprinted in Chris Harman (ed.), In the Heat of the Struggle, Bookmarks, London 1993, pp.24-5.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

IF WILSONISM means anything at all, it means the collapse of Labour’s reformism: the end of the idea that the British Labour Party stood, in however small a way, for the aspirations of the British working class against their oppressors.

Harold Wilson, since he entered parliament and politics in 1945, has seen through the various processes which led to the end of that reformism. The Labour Party manifesto for the 1945 election proclaimed an advance to socialism on two fronts: first by the nationalisation of the sub-structure of British industry – coal, steel, power, transport, gas, electricity; second, by an advance in social welfare provisions.

To some extent at least these promises were kept. Coal, steel and most of transport was nationalised.

Some welfare provisions were enacted. By 1950 Wilson and his associates were claiming that these policies had ‘created’ full employment: that any dismantling of them would mean a return to the 1930s and to slump.

A new slogan decorated Labour Party banners: ‘Towards Equality!’ was the name given to the executive policy statement of 1956, and all the Labour leaders, including Wilson, unleashed a stream of propaganda aimed at cutting public ownership out of the programme and putting in its place a vision of a decent, free, egalitarian capitalism.

The 1959 election was fought on old Fabian slogans for doing better by the old, the unemployed and the young. It cut no ice.

The election was lost by 100 seats, and the Labour leaders searched around for another ‘rethink’.

The inspiration came to them from overseas, in America, where, in Wilson’s words, ‘under a new and youthful president, they are flexing their muscles once again. They are looking to New Frontiers.’

Old Frontiers like helping the old, the sick, the unemployed, the badly-housed had clearly to be forsaken. What was needed was ‘a new leadership’ – Kennedy-style, dynamic, abrasive, gritty, chunky which would, to quote Wilson’s famous phrase in Signposts for the Sixties ‘clear the dead wood out of the boardrooms’.

Similarly, in foreign policy, opposition to Dulles’ anti-Communist foreign policy no longer attracted votes. Dulles’ policies suddenly became accepted by the Labour Party for the unanswerable reason that they were being carried out by Kennedy.

Old loyalties and old sentiments die hard, and the new broom did not sweep out all the cobwebs from Labour’s policy. At the 1962 Conference the party stood firm by old imperialist traditions (the Commonwealth) against new capitalist aspirations (the Common Market), and, for a brief moment, the party even opposed the control of Commonwealth immigrants.

But, as soon as Wilson became leader, most of these inconsistencies were sorted out. Immigration control, for instance, suddenly became part of Labour’s programme.

And, to the hysterical cheers of the Labour left, Wilson led the party firmly rightwards – away from the welfare reformism of 1959 to the new dynamism of 1964.

It is perhaps fortunate for historians that, in the midst of all his hectic talk about technology and change, Wilson paused for a moment to define socialism.

‘Socialism’ he told an audience in Birmingham in January, 1964, ‘means applying a sense of purpose to our national life, economic purpose, social purpose, moral purpose. Purpose means technical skill ...’

Socialism, in short, means applying technical skill to our national life, exactly the same as capitalism.

For the chief priority of modern capitalism over the world is the application of the most advanced methods of technology in order to defeat competitors. It is this need which is driving national capitalism into greater and greater solidarity, monopoly and merger, and, as the margins allowed by the rebuilding of Germany and Japan and a permanent arms economy become narrower, to take increasingly confident swipes at the working class.

What has happened since 1964 has relegated all talk of welfare reforms to the realms of fantasy. The reforms have either been abandoned, like the promise to build 500,000 houses by 1970; or put into effect and then rescinded (like the abolition of prescription charges); or enacted in a manner which makes them useless (like the Rent Act); or reversed to make the situation even worse than it was under the Tories (like the decision to postpone the school-leaving age).

Incomes policy, productivity bargaining, balance of payments surpluses are now trumpeted abroad as the grand achievements of a socialist government!

The supreme achievement of Harold Wilson has been his ability to proclaim such transparently capitalist policies as stark necessities, not only forced upon British Labour but also adapted by them in the most pragmatically socialist manner. It requires only for the 1968 Labour Conference to set the seal on the whole grisly process with the annual ritual – the standing ovation.


Last updated on 17.1.2005