Seymour Papert

“Errors” and Labour Leaders

A Criticism of Socialist Review

(May 1957)

A critique of Socialist Review with a reply by the editor, Michael Kidron.
From Socialist Review, Vol. 6 No. 8, May 1957, pp. 4–5.
Transcribed by Ian Birchall, Nina Kidron & Richard Kuper.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

On most subjects the Socialist Review is unique to Britain for its hard-headed, scientific way of writing. There is one exception: when it discusses certain aspects of the British labour movement (the Labour Party, TUC, etc.) it often allows a fuzzy, woolly way of talking which is in sharp contrast with its usual tone. The front page article of the April [1957] number is the worst example I have yet seen.

This article sets out a list of “lessons” to be learnt from the first few days of the snow-ball engineering strike. Though the list itself is open to objection (for example, it contains no criticism of the snow-ball principle itself) my main criticism is directed at the attitude to the labour movement shown by the discussion.

Consider, to begin with, the following quotations: “The second lesson to be learned from the strikes – a lesson that a great number of Labour MPs still have to learn – is that the Government is no umpire.” ... “such a government is a bosses’ tool, not an impartial arbitrator as many of our Labour MPs seem to believe.”

The implication is that the political position of the Labour MPs is due to their ignorance or foolishness; when they have learnt a few lessons they will stop all their nonsense and become militant champions of the class struggle. The language of the quotation – and of many other sentences in the article – is analogous with that of the Daily Worker which puts down as errors all the policies of the Stalin period. In fact neither Stalin’s politics nor those of the Labour Party (MPs included) are due to errors. In both cases they can (and must) be explained by the social function of the group concerned – the ruling bureaucracy in Russia and the leaders of the Labour Movement in Britain: each has a role to play and these roles are the roots of their ideologies and policies.

The record of the Labour Party both in power and in opposition leaves no doubt that it has a function as part and parcel of the capitalist economy. Last month Michael Kidron dealt excellently with its record as a government in service of capitalism; why should anyone expect it to be more profoundly anti-capitalist in opposition?

This does not mean to say that it cannot serve certain important interests of the working class either in power or in opposition. It can and does. What we have to see quite clearly is that it has commitments on both sides of the class line and that these explain its particular nature and policies.

Prosperous co-existence

The most relevant role of the leaders of the Labour Movement in present day Britain is their function as go-between in industrial relations. Capitalism has been sturdy enough to allow considerable gains to be won by the working class without revolutionary struggles, and the leadership as we have it has grown into the mould of mediator. Its adaptation to this function shows itself in many ways.

First of all it has developed a large bureaucracy whose major function is negotiating, drawing up and supervising industrial agreements within the framework of capitalism. For it arrangements peacefully and reasonably arrived at are better than the chaos of independent workers’ actions ... A mass union membership which will obey orders is better than workers’ democracy. A capitalism which makes profits and is therefore willing to give concessions is better than a crisis-ridden capitalism. In short it has an interest in a peaceful prospering capitalism and only just enough working class militancy to be able to show its fangs from time to time.

The new middle-class

Then there is a large stratum of intellectuals, doctors, lawyers and middle class radicals who cluster around the Labour Movement because they dislike the ‘wasteful chaos’ of capitalism (and constitute a substantial core in Party Wards and in Parliament). However they dislike the ‘wasteful chaos’ of class warfare just as much, and have a natural interest in an efficient managerial society – for which, by the way, they will provide the managers.

Each of these two groups is opposed by its nature to the growth of militant, class conscious, working class democracy and a Labour Movement over which they have a powerful influence is forced into the same stand.

Thus capitalism reaps indirectly the benefits of the concessions it was forced to make because the large, bureaucratic and reformist Labour Movement acts as a brake on revolutionary development of the working class (as, for example, in 1926) and on wild-cat militancy. Lord Cameron recently showed that he understood the situation better than many socialists when he singled out as a grave cause of the lack of “harmonious labour relations” at Briggs the fact that the shop stewards acted in an “irresponsible” way because they were not under the control of the trade unions.

This dependence of modern capitalism on the co-operation of mass organisations which, because they are able to bring about certain benefits, are able to have a large degree of control over the working class is not special to Britain. All “western” capitalist countries have developed in such a way as to give Social Democracy the function of disciplining the labour force.

Once we grant that Social Democracy has a definite function in society it becomes ridiculous to apply the word “mistake” to actions which flow from this function. The article under fire complains that the union leadership isolates itself from the rank and file; but this is like complaining that the plate fell when dropped.

It is the nature of the bureaucracy to be anti-democratic and bureaucratic – to allow workers democracy would be to commit suicide. It is no good talking, as the article glibly does, about it being the job of labour MPs to support strikes and of trade unions leaders to forge working class solidarity. For Gaitskell and Carron to accept such a “job” would be like Henry Ford accepting the “job” of introducing socialist workers’ control.

The militants’ job

When we as militant socialists join the Labour Movement we have to face the fact that it is what it is and that the relations of forces in Britain will not allow it to be very different at this time. We have to accept the consequences of being a minority working for a clearer understanding and a more militant outlook on a wider base.

We have to encourage and develop every tendency towards greater independence of action, socialist consciousness and democracy (e.g. by strengthening and politicising the shop stewards committees). We have to be in the fore-front of the fight to expose not only the falseness of New Think ideas but also their source in the position of those who propound them.


1. We do not have to cloak our support of the party in a mist of illusions about its class nature, the possibilities of “left wing” manoeuvring, and the essential goodness of heart of its poor MPs misled into bad ways only by ignorance.

2. We do not have to identify ourselves with the bureaucratic leadership and adopt its bureaucratic language as in the following sentence from the article under discussion:

“Our only weapons are mass solidarity and the knowledge of the rank and file of our aims. The job of the leadership is to expand this knowledge ...”

Are “our aims” the same as the aims of the leaders of the Party? Is our concept of workers’ democracy so watered down that our picture of a working class party is a leadership which informs the masses of its decisions?

3. We do not have to allow ourselves to be so absorbed into Anti-Tory campaigning that we allow ourselves to criticise arbitration – as this article does – solely on the grounds that the arbitrators are Tories. Arbitration is going to be, in principle, just as much anti-working class if the Labour Party wins the next election as it is now.


Yours fraternally,
Seymour Papert

* * *

The criticism criticized

The editor replies:

We have no quarrel with Comrade Papert. On the contrary, we fully endorse the main points of his letter. We agree completely with his analysis of the function of Social Democracy in Western capitalist society.

But although we agree with the analysis, we cannot accept the criticism levelled against our editorial of last month. As Comrade Papert says, we militant socialists who are part of the Labour Movement “have to face the fact that it is what it is and that the relation of forces in Britain will not allow it to be very different at this time.” One of the cardinal features of the Labour Movement at the present time is precisely that the vast majority of the rank-and-file do not accept Comrade Papert’s (and our) view on the leadership, that they do expect support from the Labour MPs and trade-union bureaucrats.

Experience of betrayal after betrayal by these leaders – an experience which we believe inevitable – will eventually dissipate these illusions. The function of militant socialists is to juxtapose illusion with reality, put our fingers on what the rank-and-file expects of its leaders, formulate these demands and thus implicitly show how the are not, and can never fully be, fully satisfied within the present framework of society.

Finally, it might interest Comrade Papert to know that the Mike Kidron whom he praises for dealing “excellently” with the sorry record of the Labour Government in office is the same who wrote last month’s editorial in such a “fuzzy, woolly way.”

Last updated on 16 February 2017