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International Socialism, Summer 1962


Henry Collins

Left Reformism Restated


From International Socialism (1st series), No.9, Summer 1962, pp.24-28.
Thanks to Ted Crawford & the late Will Fancy.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Henry Collins is a staff tutor with the University of Oxford extra-mural department. He is involved in the educational schemes of the Amalgamated Union of Foundry Workers, the Fire Brigades’ Union and the Transport and General Workers’ Union. His publications include: Trade Unions Today (1950); with Basil Davidson and others, The New West Africa (1953); with H.J. Fyrth, The Foundry Works, a trade union history (1960). He has published essays on the London Corresponding Society and the English branches of the First International; and dealt in his DPhil thesis with England and the First International. Member of the Communist Party from 1936 to 1957, he now considers himself ‘on the extreme right of the extreme left.’

This struggle about the legal restriction of the hours of labour raged the more fiercely since, apart from frightened avarice, it told indeed upon the great contest between the blind rule of the supply and demand laws which form the political economy of the middle class, and social production controlled by social foresight, which forms the political economy of the working class. Hence the Ten Hours’ Bill was not only a great practical success; it was the victory of a principle; it was the first time that in broad daylight the political economy of the middle class succumbed to the political economy of the working class.

Karl Marx: Inaugural Address of the International Working Men’s Association

It is a good thing that Marx wrote the passage quoted above. If anyone else had done so, it is easy to imagine the reception he would have had from the editors of International Socialism. The faintly sad patience of Alasdair MacIntyre, the mildly ironical scorn of Michael Kidron would have been deployed against the ‘theoretical structure’ implicit in the argument. ‘Social production controlled by social foresight,’ the editors would have quietly explained, was not an appropriate way of describing an inadequate measure, evaded as often as observed, and emanating from a Parliament of Whigs and Tories. The political economy of the middle class, they would have gone on to demonstrate, could hardly succumb to the political economy of the working class when the former were in unqualified control of both the state and the means of production. But since Marx did in fact write the passage, I feel justified in repeating it for its relevance and adding two further observations. The Ten Hours’ Act was not the last victory to have been won by the workers against the capitalists, by the principle of social control against the political economy of supply and demand. And the accumulation of many such victories since 1847 has induced some qualitative changes in capitalism; some of these changes now invalidated some of Marx’s revolutionary conclusions.

This was, broadly, the case I argued in the article which started the controversy. The case was criticised by MacIntyre as being altogether too mechanical. ‘In particular,’ he writes, ‘beliefs about the system are not pictured as playing a role inside the system ... When beliefs enter Collins’ picture ... they appear as external to the system described.’ I do not believe this stricture to be justified. I am sure that the achievement of socialism is impossible until large numbers of people believe in it. I am not so sure that the same is true of revolution. This seems often to happen when it is least expected, when most people, including many of those who start the revolution, neither want it nor believe in it. Revolution occurs when decisive numbers of people find a continuation of existing conditions intolerable, begin to change them and find, in the process, that they have begun to change a social system. Revolution occurs when masses of people are propelled into political activity and when the ruling class loses its confidence and coherence. This seems to me to presuppose a crisis sharp enough to shake the foundations of society. To judge from precedent, such crises do not occur because of men’s beliefs, though when they do occur they change them drastically. It is also true to say that the character of men’s beliefs will determine the outcome of such a crisis. In the article in question I was concerned with the limited but important question of whether a crisis of this kind and of these dimensions was likely to occur. The answer I reached was ‘no.’ MacIntyre seems to believe for reasons which are not very clear to me, that it was the wrong answer.

’The essence of working class enslavement,’ he says, rightly, ‘is not impoverishment. It is that “be his wages high or low,” the worker leads an existence which is enforced upon him. The germ of his liberation lies in the twin facts that capitalism cannot prevent him from recognising that he is unfree and from combining with other workers to free himself.’ This seems to mean that since the worker is dependent on the capitalist for the right to work and is subjected to capitalist dictation when he exercises that right he must resent the conditions imposed on him by capitalism and seek to change them. This – ‘the deep and incurable dissatisfaction with social life which capitalism breeds’ – is the first element making for revolution in MacIntyre’s picture. In fact, as he would probably agree, it makes for social change. Revolution arises when this element fuses with two others which he lists – the ‘recurrent state of objective crisis’ and socialist theory. This seems to me to beg the question. Are the recurrent crises of post-War British capitalism, for example, of the kind likely to spark off social revolution? If not, what kind of crisis is required and is it particularly likely? Until MacIntyre has answered these questions he is not going to convince reformists that the third element, revolutionary socialist consciousness among the mass of the people, is at all probable – much less inevitable – in Britain in the foreseeable future.

Kidron takes up the economic side of the argument where MacIntyre leaves off. In line with MacIntyre, Kidron says that my argument amounts to a ‘straight, rather crude economism’ because I think that revolution depends upon crisis and poverty engendered by capitalist society. This may be crude economism, but I am fairly happy to be sharing it with Marx, Engels and, for that matter, with Kidron, who writes that ‘ Although capitalism as a system breeds frustration and aggression with every hour of its existence, by alienating the worker from his labour and, ultimately, from himself, it is only the system’s instability, its crises, that weld these fragmented personally-conceived dissatisfactions and aggressive drives into class consciousness and class action.’ Since we are agreed on this, the question resolves itself into whether contemporary capitalism generates, or is likely to generate, crises of the necessary kind.

I argued that the comparative freedom from unemployment experienced in capitalist countries since the War was due to the fact that the level of demand was not left, as previously, to chance and the vagaries of private investment, but was controlled by government at a level approximating to full employment. Kidron denies this. In so far as capitalism is now planned, he thinks, the planning is a function of war preparations which are so vast and persistent as to have reached the stage of the ‘permanent war economy.’ This guarantees budget deficits on a scale adequate to maintain full employment and provides an outlet for investment independent of the market.

Kidron takes his examples for this argument from the United States, and it is pleasant, for once, to register complete agreement. It is notable that the US Congress prunes or rejects the social spending proposed by Kennedy, while, so far as arms are concerned, the sky – if we are to be literal, not even the sky – is the limit. But for all relevant purposes, the United States is unique among major capitalist powers in the lack of control exercised over its economy by the central government. Congress can and does obstruct the President in a way no House of Commons could conceivably obstruct a British Prime Minister. Social spending, the feasible alternative to arms spending in a full employment policy, is largely controlled by the fifty State governments which, unlike British counties and county boroughs, are free to pursue policies in flat opposition to the wishes of the central authorities. In this kind of capitalist state, defence spending seems to be the main support for economic stability. An end to the arms race would almost certainly precipitate a crisis in the United States.

The crisis would probably give rise to a political upheaval. Surprising things could then happen. But to cope with a crisis of this kind, America would hardly require a proletarian revolution and the expropriation of the expropriators. She need merely bring her political system and her economic thinking into line with those in other capitalist states. This would not be easy. But the US constitution has surmounted serious difficulties in the past. She might fail, but there seems no particular reason why she should. For the changes required would hardly threaten the maintenance of capitalist property. The American ruling class might, on the other hand, lose its head or its nerve or its sense and plunge still deeper into crisis and upheaval. I know of no social crystal which will predict the future course of US politics. But the inevitability or even the probability of proletarian revolution does not seem to me to follow from any realistic analysis of the American situation.

To prove his case, Kidron should have shown that, for the European capitalist countries too, arms spending on a vast and expanding scale was needed to preserve full employment and stave off slump. This, after all, was largely true in the ‘thirties. It is important for Marxists to know whether it is still true or whether there have been major changes in capitalist economic policy since 1945.

The economic argument can be briefly stated. For economies which tend to chronic under-employment, arms spending has normally supplied a boost or stabilizer. For fully employed economies, however, it is a serious liability, diverting resources from productive investment and contributing to inflationary pressure. In another attack of schizophrenia, Kidron seems at one stage to recognise this, since he writes: ‘It is significant in this regard that no matter what the weather forecast at the Summit in recent years, British capitalism has found military expenditure above £1500 million a year (plus or minus £100 million) unacceptable.’ In fact, the arms bill ceiling is now accepted as 7 per cent of the gross national product. This does not look like an economy dependent on arms spending to perpetuate full employment. I wish Kidron had considered the sharp contrast between British and American experience and drawn some conclusions. Had he done so, I do not think he could have sustained the contention that the Cold War is an economic asset to capitalist economies which in other ways have found the means of securing economic stability much greater than anything contemplated before the War.

Kidron nowhere seriously tries to explain what there is to prevent the State from investing enough on houses, roads and hospitals, to say nothing of nationalized industries, to sustain full or near-full employment indefinitely, even at the cost of continuing budget deficits. The difficulty which capitalist economies, maintaining full employment through Keynesian policies, have been unable to overcome is that while it is generally possible to reflate to full employment it is very difficult not to overshoot into inflation. Inflation has its own dynamic and gives rise to its own disturbances. The most dangerous of these affects the balance of payments. It is impossible for all competing countries to inflate in line with each other, and those which inflate fastest suffer most from balance of payment deficits. This induces corrective treatment leading to stagnation or a reduced rate of growth. Economies regulated mainly by monetary and fiscal controls, such as the British, are especially prone to stagnate. Attempts to deal with this without extending the area of effective social control involve restraining wages which provokes resistance from the working class.

Industrial resistance to wage freezing ties up with the political demand for more rapid growth combined with a more equitable distribution of the proceeds of growth. This is inconceivable without more effective public control, based on an expanded sector of publicly owned industry. In this way, the contradictory pressures generated by capitalism can stimulate both industrial militancy and the political struggle for socialization.

The situation calls, however, for a trade union movement and a Labour Party that will fight. The weakness of ‘right reformism’ is not its demands for reforms but its unwillingness to press for more than capitalism is willing to concede. The dominance of right reformism in the Labour Party gives rise to disillusionment, political cynicism and the development of the ‘do it yourself reformism’ to which Kidron and other contributors have drawn attention. There is undoubtedly a growth of rank and file militancy unconnected with and even contemptuous of the Labour Party. There are suggestions that even right wing trade unions might progressively disengage from the Labour Party and indications that Mr George Woodcock might not be displeased with such developments.

’Do it yourself reformism’ may prove, despite Kidron, to be no more permanent or effective than the syndicalism of the years preceding World War I. Trade unions will strengthen their links with the Labour Party if it develops enough fight to look like paying political dividends. If this does not happen – and it well may not – in time for the next election, another Labour defeat or an ineffective Labour Government returned on a minority vote, will mean a lasting decline in Labour’s fortunes. The beneficiaries, on all available evidence, will be the Liberals and not the Left. I do not accept the MacIntyre-Kidron thesis that there is now no work for reformists to do. The argument, put most clearly by MacIntyre, is that in the present stage of monopoly capitalism the trusts, cartels and State so interpenetrate that the State becomes merely primus inter pares, losing in the process its controlling and directive functions. This, he believes, accounts for the declining appeal of political Labour in Britain, since big firms can offer increasing fringe benefits to their employees, who look decreasingly to politics to satisfy their material needs.

I have the greatest respect for the two comrades who edit International Socialism, but even so I am not prepared to accept their unsupported assertions for this remarkable sociological thesis. It may be that detailed research would bring out the fact that Labour’s electoral losses have been primarily among employees of large concerns enjoying fringe benefits. But until the results of sueh research are published I am going to remain sceptical about this far from self-evident theory.

This new version of the withering away of the State is intriguing rather than convincing. Even President Kennedy has recently found work for the state to do in restraining the anti-social proclivities of US Steel. A British Labour Government under strong trade union pressure (I do not believe that MacIntyre does not know what ‘pressure’ means) would find plenty to do in doubling the rate of economic growth while lessening the inequality in the distribution of the national product. A faster rate of growth will mean more inflation in the absence of controls over incomes. It will also mean bigger balance of payments deficits in the absence of import and exchange controls. It will moreover involve planning precise rates of growth for key industries and sectors, which will prove difficult without substantial further nationalization. But quite apart from the exigencies of overall economic planning, the housing problem, linked as it is with the location of industry and the integration of transport, can not be approached successfully without nationalizing the freehold of development land, re-nationalizing road haulage and municipalizing rented property. Some of these things a Labour Government would do anyway; for others it would need – if MacIntyre will excuse the expression – pressure from political left wingers in constituency parties and industrial militants on the shop floor.

Even such modest objectives as those indicated above could not be achieved without overcoming pretty stiff resistance from entrenched property interests. To overcome such resistance a Labour Government would need to crack down heavily on recalcitrant employers, bankers and probably civil servants. For this to be successful, the Government would need to mobilize the people and their organizations on its side. If this is what International Socialism means by revolution I am with it.

Some doubts have been expressed as to whether Hugh Gaitskell and his immediate entourage are really the men for this sort of job. Millions who would not put it in these terms seem to have grasped intuitively the fact that the Labour Party, under the present dispensation, is not exactly built for battle. The very widely expressed view that there is ‘ no difference ‘ between the major parties does not refer so much to Labour’s program as to the likelihood of it being carried out. That is why the continuation of right wing dominance means the slow death of Labour. This is what, as I understand it, the fight between right and left in the movement is about.

On this there is not, perhaps, a great deal of difference between us. Pressure for reforms, the organization of workers behind demands for which they are prepared to fight, infusing the resulting movement, so far as opportunity permits, with socialist belief and understanding – this seems to me and presumably to other socialists of the left to be the line of attack most likely to push our society in the direction of socialism. But I am critical even of the immediate demands which appear in the publications of British revolutionary socialists. They seem too much like Trotsky’s idea of a ‘transitional program’, that is to say like a program of demands manifestly unrealisable except in an imminently revolutionary situation. This kind of situation, I have urged, is unlikely to occur in Britain in the foreseeable future. Such programs, therefore, do not contribute towards mobilising the workers or towards anything else except the lasting isolation of revolutionary socialists from the rest of the Labour movement.

This brings me to the Bomb, for neglecting which I was rebuked by both editors in their rejoinders. I cannot agree with MacIntyre that possession of the Bomb changes in any way the balance of class forces in the possessing country. Capitalism is not weaker in West Germany, which lacks the Bomb, that in Britain, which makes it. If the Bomb goes off there will be no transition to socialism in Britain or, possibly, anywhere else. My article was, therefore, necessarily written on the assumption that it would not go off. Whether it does or not is chiefly a question of how international relations develop during the sixties. And here I come to another drastic difference with the views of International Socialism and Socialist Review. It is a belief common to all groups belonging to what I should call, if I were being unfraternal, the sectarian left, that nothing can succeed or is any good this side of the revolution. Since there is always enough going on in the political field which does not succeed or is no good, the left sectarian is never out of ammunition. But he is often out of members, or nearly so, since most people refuse to wait for a revolution which may never happen. To be fair this kind of millennial politics did not come in with Kidron and MacIntyre. Every democratic advance and every social reform in British history has been denounced by the left of its day as a defeat, a diversion or a betrayal. Yet social progress has obstinately continued – and I suspect that it may not have stopped yet.

This trend appears at its worst when it comes to the Bomb, and pretty bad when it comes to the Summit. Briefly, International Socialism seems convinced that without a world proletarian revolution the Bomb will go off. It may very well go off, but 1 know of no grounds for believing that it inevitably will. ‘Capitalism has always led to war,’ it is argued correctly, with the false corollary that therefore it always must. Logically, this is a non-starter, as any reader of David Hume would agree. It might equally be argued that because capitalism was always accompanied by mass unemployment until 1939, it must always be so accompanied. I think Kidron still believes this – that in the absence of War an ultimate big slump is inevitable.

But I find his arguments inconclusive. Regarding war, two super-powers possess the Bomb, in any real sense, and are reluctant that it should spread. It is supremely important that it should not spread, which seems to me the most cogent argument for CND. If it does not spread, if, for a decisive period, it is retained under the control of the Big Two, it may never be used at all. With the Bomb, as with the Russian Revolution, something new came into the world. Capitalism cannot behave in the same way as before in the presence of massive Soviet power and of the Bomb, if its leaders want to survive. And I do not see why the leaders of world capitalism and of the USSR (whatever you choose to call it) should commit suicide in an inconceivably horrible way in order to confirm the political and social theories of International Socialism. We are on a very slippery slope and we may, therefore, slip. But it is to everyone’s interest that we don’t, and therefore we may not. Summitry and other forms of diplomacy may create a context in which international conflict can be contained without war. The neutrals, whatever their physical or political colour, by refusing to adhere to either camp, so strengthening their independence, add powerfully to the forces making for peace. But if nothing is any good this side of the revolution, if Nehru and Nkrumah, Gaitskell and Wilson, Krushchev and Kennedy, Castro and Tito, are all reactionary because they have failed to set up the kind of society of which International Socialism can approve, then Marx was wrong in warning the followers of Lassalle not to regard everybody but the proletariat as ‘only one reactionary mass.’

Regarding the further expansion of international trade, about which Kidron is pessimistic, substantially the same argument recurs. The fact that no capitalist economy is immune from balance of payments difficulties, the fact that Germany, the latest victim, feels obliged to follow Britain’s example and meet them through internal deflation and that this, if persisted in, can bring expansion of world trade to an end, is apparently common ground. Such difficulties seem to me to arise from archaic monetary and fiscal policies, as did the mass unemployment of the inter-war years. On this kind of issue, Marx is unfortunately a poor guide. His ideas on money as a commodity, expressed in the Critique of Political Economy, were an accurate enough generalization from prevailing practice. Money in Marx, and in nineteenth century reality, played a neutral role in the trade cycle, as did the State. Keynes showed that they need not necessarily do so.

It is possible, though not easy, to remedy the existing lack of liquidity in international trade which may well, if not remedied, stifle its further development. Kidron does not subject Triffin, or any of the variations on his plan, to serious criticism. The point about them is, as with Keynes from whose approach they largely derive, that they provide means of overcoming shortage of liquidity while preserving private ownership. No doubt they involve changes in the direction of capitalism which it will not welcome and which may ultimately cause its supersession by more effective systems of economic and social control. Capitalism, here, may have the choice between early suicide and a more protracted retirement. Precedents drawn from the behaviour of earlier ruling classes, which did not know what they were doing, may well mislead Marxists. Social science has made some headway, capitalists have some idea of what they are doing and they may not choose to commit suicide. More probably, as in the USA of the 1930s, some will press policies of a suicidal nature, while others will prefer, like Roosevelt, stability at the cost of changing the balance of class forces in favour of the workers. By methods which he does not make fully clear, Kidron is able to predict the victory of the suicide club. He may be right, but I find the assumption premature.

We need not return for long to the debate about the character of Soviet society. It does not really matter what you call it. What matters is that it seems capable of expanding the productive forces at a rate without parallel – except for very short periods – either, pace MacIntyre, in the nineteenth century or in the contemporary Common Market. A social system capable of such rapid development will not be overthrown by internal revolution. No social system, says Marx, disappears before all the productive forces for which it has room have been developed, and there seems no reason, on this, to suppose him wrong. The capitalist world can also, of course, continue to develop production, though apparently at a significantly slower pace. But, as I tried to show in my first article, it has not eliminated its contradictions and may not be able to do so without being brought increasingly under social control.

Finally, I agree with MacIntyre and, so far as I can understand him, with von Oertzen, when they contend that the exploitation of the worker is not only material and would not disappear with the elimination of primary poverty. The commodity status of labour power imposes an unfree and humanly degrading relationship on the worker which he is bound to resist. This, apart from low wages and crises, gives rise to a permanent class struggle under capitalism and will do so until private ownership has been eliminated. But we seem all to be agreed that class struggle does not erupt into revolution save under conditions of desperate crisis. Revolution, after all, is a desperate undertaking. Here, again, I see the way forward, at least for the time being, in piecemeal concessions. The most important of these immediately realisable is the guaranteed annual wage, or some variant of it, which relieves the worker from having his livelihood dependent on the needs and even the whims of his employer. Other fringe benefits are also attainable, or have been begun to be attained. This is far from being revolution, but in so far as it improves the status and enhances the self respect of the workers it increases their expectations and demands on society. In doing this, it provides another pre-requisite for socialism. But perhaps it is time to start a discussion on workers’ control.

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