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International Socialism, Spring 1962


John Fairhead

Social Democracy in Britain


From International Socialism (1st series), No.8, Spring 1962, p.29.
Thanks to Ted Crawford & the late Will Fancy.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Parliamentary Socialism
Ralph Miliband
Allen and Unwin. 35s.

In this book Miliband comes extraordinarily close to Marxism, but fails to drive his train of thought to its terminus. His analysis of the Labour Movement can hardly be faulted: but he is only an analyst, ending his skilled survey of Labour history and his extensively documented indictment of its leadership very lamely.

‘Even if a socialist Labour Party had not, in the fifties, won more elections than did the Labour Party as it was, it would not have found defeat catastrophic: armed with genuine alternatives to Conservatism, it would have been able to take the longer view, and seen its electoral defeats, not as the occasion for retreat, but as a spur to greater efforts in its task of political conversion ... If the Labour Party were to become such a party, ... it would elicit the kind of devotion and support which a consolidating Labour Party now finds it increasingly difficult to engender.’ (p.349)

Marxists do not close the books by balancing the deficit with an historical ‘if’. They examine how a socialist working-class party can be constructed in Britain, concluding inevitably that such a party, though cradled in the historically-created mass Labour Party, must be built on revolutionary lines and linked organically with a revolutionary International. And they question that word ‘catastrophic’, pointing out that catastrophe can come in only two ways to a reformist organization: it can be smashed by a Fascist dictatorship, or discarded by a class whose consciousness has advanced to a higher level. Meanwhile, a reformist party may suffer setbacks, but will persist for exactly so long as the class retains its illusions about reformist methods and the parliamentary arena. A sharp downswing in the economy will today find its reflection, despite everything, in a new mass turn to Labour; the problem of reformism is not solved simply by wishing it away.

Miliband goes at once to the contradiction at the root of Labour politics. The working class seeks independent political expression; but this expression is confined within a parliamentary system fashioned by another class. In the duel between the classes the workers are obliged, so long as they remain captive to reformism, to fight on the enemy’s terrain with weapons of his choosing. From such a contest the ruling class, however scarred, must emerge the victor.

Helped by their rudimentary ‘Marxism’ – of an extremely raw and schematic kind – the leaders of the militant Left before the first world war were seized of this dilemma, which they tried to escape by the short cut of syndicalist direct action. They are echoed today by those who imagine that merely grafting ‘industrial groups’ on to the Committee of 100 can somehow skirt the problem of the influence of reformist illusions on the minds of workers. They found what others will find: only that militancy leads to – more militancy, and thence to exhaustion and demoralization if conducted without a perspective.

Two of Lenin’s greatest contributions were his uncovering of the roots of reformism and his understanding of the tactics needed to expose and defeat it. The utmost use of capitalist political institutions such as parliament as sounding-boards, and the setting of demands which lead the class by stages into conflict with these institutions, will result in the supersession of these institutions only if two conditions are satisfied. Imperialism must have reached a stage of crisis in which the privileges of the aristocracy of labour are undermined and threatened; and the revolutionary Party must succeed in winning the confidence of the workers, dispelling the reformist illusions of the majority and leading them to the seizure of power.

As this book illustrates very clearly, the General Strike was a classic example of a situation in which the first of these conditions was largely fulfilled, but not the second. The author shows the terror which strikes at the heart of reformists faced with the obligation to take power. They are not equipped for its capture, still less for its exercise. They hanker only for office and, whatever their subjective good intentions, become greedy for it for its own sake.

This excellent historical account, so richly quarried and so detailed (as seen, for example, in its treatment of the part played by the ‘new line’ Communist Party after 1929 in assisting the emasculation of the Labour Left) must be criticized mainly in that it stops short at historical analysis. The comprehensive title of the book should indicate an equally penetrating treatment of current trends. This is not provided.

The crisis of reformism today is rooted in the decline of capitalism into its neo-colonialist phase. The expansion of the world market made possible by the opening up of hitherto cash-crop colonial economies to exploitation on a more massive scale, which has been the distinguishing feature of capitalism since the second world war, is meeting the advancing colonial revolution in headlong collision. The revolution in permanence now unfolding in Asia and Africa has ended the political stability of these areas, obliging imperialism, in the pursuit of its plans for capital investment, to concentrate and statify to an unheard of degree.

Naturally this process has engendered rifts in the ruling class, and hence in the social-democratic leadership, which mirrors these conflicts and reproduces them often on the level of farce. Jay versus Jenkins on the Common Market is the current expression of this: and the possibility is presented of isolating and driving out the far Right, if only the revolutionary Left fights on a clear and uncompromised platform.

It is here that the author points the valuable lesson of the limits of ‘left’ reformist or, more properly, of the Left reformists.

‘... many of the political ambiguities of parliamentary Bevanism were but a reflection of its ideological ambiguities. Throughout, parliamentary Bevanism was a mediation between the leadership and the rank and file opposition. But the parliamentary Bevanites, while assuming the leadership of that opposition, also served to blur and blunt both its extent and its strength. Themselves limited by their parliamentary and executive obligations, they fell back on the politics of manoeuvre, and were regularly outmanoeuvred in the process.’ (p.327)

This is exactly true, and is nowhere revealed more clearly than in the Bevanite Bible, In Place of Fear, where the master touchingly lays bear his own enduring faith in parliament, and his conception of power as really residing in, and limited to, the parliamentary arena.

The Left must be led, stage by stage, to understand that real power is with the giant capitalist trusts and all the institutions of the state which protects and serves them. The heights of this power can be stormed only by the masses mobilized in the extra-parliamentary arena, and the fight which any revolutionist can wage in parliament or local government is circumscribed by his knowledge of this. Yet to achieve full effect, all the mass actions of the working class and of other classes which feel their interests (or their lives!) threatened by capitalism must be directed to resolving the conflict within the organized Labour Movement. The most militant industrial struggles, the most heroic anti-bomb activities, can avoid dissipation only if they find reflection in a struggle within the Labour Party to break the grip of the bureaucracy, and of its ideology, reformism. The demands for socialist nationalization with workers’ control against the mixed economy, of the Socialist United States of Europe against the Common Market, of the workers’ International against imperialist alliances, form the platform around which this fight will be waged. And in the waging of it the cadres of the revolutionary Party in Britain will be assembled and steeled.

These precise conclusions are not drawn by Dr. Miliband from this study. Yet this book offers ample data to reinforce these conclusions, and the wealth of facts and stimulating arguments its author provides makes it essential reading.

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