Ralph Miliband


Power at the Top

(Autumn 1959)

From Universities & Left Review, No.7, Autumn 1959, p.75.
Downloaded with thanks as a PDF from the Barry Amiel & Norman Melburn Trust.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Power at the Top. A Critical Survey of the Nationalised Industries
by Clive Jenkins
MacGibbon & Kee, 292 pages (21/-).

Let’s face it, comrades, nationalisation is a boring subject. Lots of socialists, or people who call themselves socialists (there is a difference) react to it like the woman who said to Mrs. Lincoln: “Yes, yes, Mrs. Lincoln, but what about the play?” “Yes, yes,” they say, particularly if they are part of the new ripple, “but what about people,” or words to that effect. What complicates matters is that they are quite right in one sense and quite wrong in another. Quite right in suggesting that nationalisation isn’t socialism, quite wrong in suggesting that it is therefore of secondary importance, or even irrelevant, to it. Breathing isn’t life, but no one has yet found out how to have the one without the other. The same is true of nationalisation and socialism; except that, in this case, some of the alchemists who now squat on the upper plateaux of the Labour Establishment claim to have found the secret.

The spread of boredom with nationalisation has undoubtedly been greatly helped by the post-1945 experience of the nationalised industries and that boredom, in turn, is now a great asset to the anti-nationalisers in the Labour movement. “You see,” people also say, “you have had nationalisation and, whatever else you may claim for it, there isn’t much socialism about it, is there now?” And of course there isn’t. What they ignore is that what there was of nationalisation after 1945 was not concerned with socialism, all rhetoric apart, but with the more efficient management of a tired capitalist economy.

Power at the Top is a valuable book because it documents, with a wealth of detail, the various ways in which the marginal “public sector” has consistently been made to strengthen the “private” one. There was, at the start, the absurd scale of compensation paid to shareholders. As well as imposing a fearsome burden upon the nationalised industries, compensation also released vast capital resources for investment in other sectors of the economy. There was also the composition of the personnel of the nationalised boards. Mr. Jenkins clearly shows the extent to which the public corporations have been run by people whose connections with finance and industry have been, and have remained, exceptionally close.

Not surprisingly, the corporations have formed additional bases of operation for Britain’s economic rulers. Their purpose, quite naturally, has been to attune the policies of the corporations to the needs and requirements of the predominant part, that is to say the capitalist part, of the economy. One result of this, as Mr. Jenkins notes, has been to make the nationalised industries “an instrument in maintaining the frozen class structure of British society”. Nor has the presence of trade unionists on the boards – not to speak of professional executives of one sort or another – seriously impeded the subordination of the “public sector” to capitalist purposes. The same is true of ministerial control and of what is amusingly called parliamentary control.

There has, says Mr. Jenkins, “been a planned and purposeful counter-revolution which has resulted in the return of active adherents of the older property-possessing groups and their social attitudes to direct management power in the nationalised industries.” This, on his own showing, is somewhat misleading. The return of a Conservative Government in 1951 may have accentuated the trend. But it was the Labour revolutionaries themselves who started the counter-revolution of which he speaks. By December, 1949, as he notes, “of 131 names listed by Mr. Attlee on central nationalised boards, sixty-one also held directorships in private companies, twenty-three were knights, nine were lords, and three were generals. It may not be altogether unfair to suggest that their devotion to the socialist ethos was not obsessional.”

Mr. Jenkins rightly laments the fact that so little was done by its creators to bring the public corporation, to use Mr. Bevan’s phrase, into public ownership. Much more undoubtedly could have been done, in a multitude of directions. But it is just as well to realise the immense and, in some ways, the insuperable, difficulties in making the nationalised industries conform to non-capitalist purposes so long as they remain a marginal part of the economy. In a sea of capitalist impulses, it has been aptly said, they could not become islands of socialist virtue. Ultimately, there is only one way of giving the public corporations a different character, and that is by an extension of nationalisation to the point where the public sector is overwhelmingly more important and powerful than the private one. Even then, a socialised base will not amount to socialism, or resolve all the problems attendant upon a socialist organisation of industry. But it will constitute the essential beginning, for this, and for much else. Without it. any talk of socialism must remain a poor joke.

Last updated on 10 July 2010