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International Socialism, Winter 1963/4


Editorial 1

Labour’s Technocratic Lapse


From International Socialism, No.15, Winter 1963/4, pp.1-2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The development of Labour Party politics since the accession of Wilson ought to teach us to be surprised at nothing. Official policies have remained at least as Right-Wing in content as those of the Gaitskell era, while the traditional Left has ceased to differentiate itself on practically any major point of principle. Even during Gaitskell’s leadership, for instance, opposition to the Commonwealth Immigrants’ Act was at least couched in broad international terms. At the end of November, however, the Parliamentary Labour Party agreed to support the continuance of the Act for a further year, providing the Government undertook to explore the chances of voluntary control of immigration by arrangement with Commonwealth governments. Since no such Tory undertaking was given, the Parliamentary Labour Party voted against the Act’s renewal; but the way is now open for a future Labour administration to operate colour-bar controls pending the outcome of Commonwealth negotiations.

The last few months, too, have seen the virtual disappearance of unilateralism as a platform for the Labour Left. Indeed, since foreign and defence affairs have formed the main source of the post-war Left’s identity, it is scarcely too much to say that Labour no longer has a Left Wing. By an unspoken and probably even unconscious gentlemen’s agreement, the old Right and the old Left fan out their fire across the same off-centre issues (British Deterrent, German atomic ambitions), while the bull’s-eye of NATO, and the cancerous nucleus of The Bomb itself, by whomsoever used or deployed, go unscathed.

On the domestic policy, too, the Left has been either out-manoeuvred or absorbed. The hallowed Transport House tactics of covering up divergencies of principle with a plausible phrase (such as ‘planned incomes policy’) that means all things to all men has this time succeeded magnificently. James Callaghan and Ted Hill, it seems, have not after all been holding different views on capitalism and the class-struggle all these years; all they needed was a spot of skilful draughtsmanship to make them agree upon the fundamental economic document for the next Labour government. Nor is this point entirely a matter of crude irony: a Left-reformist approach, which views the advance to Socialism as a series of legislative or administrative measures to be undertaken by a Parliamentary and trade-union caucus, overlaps a Right-reformist philosophy to a dangerous extent.

The salient identifying feature of Wilsonite politics, which enables the new Leader to offer simultaneous consolation to Left and Right, is its language of modernisation and technological renewal. Rationalisation, planning, up-to-dateness, linked with altruistic proposals for domestic and overseas welfare, form common motifs in Labour’s defence, foreign, educational and economic policies. More recently there has been a new set of themes, implying a long-term, indeed epochal vision of human potentialities and a recognition of the historical importance of innovation in science and tool-making: this use of a passive bastard-Marxism, devoid of any notion of class society and class struggle, is fairly novel in the British Labour movement (though of long standing in German Social-Democracy), and has proved rather captivating among Leftish white-collar strata.

A tremendous danger to socialism is in fact implicit in the repetition by Left-wingers of technological slogans which blur over the distinction of class society. Rationalisation by State intervention, and the extension of public investment, do not in themselves run counter to the main economic tendencies of modern capital. The recent series of reports from technically-orientated commissions (Robbins, Trend, Buchanan) set up by the Conservative Government is obvious evidence that Labour has no claim to originality in the genesis of technological reformism. There is every reason to fear that, unless it be implemented as part of an overall onslaught against the capitalist system of relations, any technological reform, no matter how large-visioned, public-minded or State-financed, will serve only as a fresh functional adaptation of the ancient bourgeois organism. We do not have to wait for Wilson’s Premiership to see how this might come about. The late ‘New Left’, for instance, adopted the slogan of ‘urban renewal’, i.e. the large-scale replanning of city centres. This enlightened architectural reform was canvassed as a component of socialist humanism, or, socialism at its fullest stretch! Some of the chief proponents of this demand, including Mr. Graeme Shankland, its main publicist,

have since been working to achieve it in the city of Liverpool, first under a Tory and now under a Labour corporation. Large-scale urban renewal in capitalist conditions has entailed the furtherance of large-scale property development interests to handle the project (in this case the Ravenseft company), the expensive replacement of a retail market whose present low rentals attract small traders, and the building of fast urban motorways whose approaches intersect depressed working-class quarters.

Labour’s technocratic propaganda, with its special attention to the possessors of management expertise, replaces even the limited class-sense of the old reformism with an appeal to the technically most advanced elements within the business system. With the exception of the steel barons, who have begun their pre-election campaign on a distinctly defensive note, British capitalism does not seem especially alarmed by the by-election and Gallup Poll results. The most efficient elements of the system, who are by and large the most prosperous, may indeed expect to do fairly well out of a Labour term of office; and under Wilson they have not even the bogey of an identifiable Clause Four Left with which to frighten themselves and the floating electorate. Their conclusions might well be the same as those of Macmillan in his confidences to the Kenya settlers’ leader Blundell during the electoral hubbub of 1959:

‘He (Macmillan) told me that England could not be governed for long if there were great differences between the parties, and that a fair measure of agreement on fundamental issues had now been achieved, which meant reasonable stability whatever the result of the election.’ (Sunday Times, 1 December).

Within this setting of the increasing absorption of the Labour Party and TUC into the objectives of capitalism, and the almost total abdication and bemusement of the classical Left, the task of this journal is to call things by their proper names, to delineate the hard features of social reality that are conveniently but still ineffectively blurred by the advocates of superficial ‘unity’. The Bomb is still with us; NATO has not been abolished, except in the amount of space devoted to it in Tribune. And the struggle of the working class goes forward as it did in the Gaitskell era, as it will if Wilson enters Downing Street. It is only by the degree to which this struggle is advanced, as a self-acting movement of the class itself as it pushes towards the mastery of society, that the programme of the Labour Party is to be judged. Nothing in the utterances of the present Labour leadership (whose Front-Bench faces are in many cases identical with those of the Gaitskellite Right wing) has persuaded us that its sympathy for working-class struggle and working-class control has increased. The language of technological reformism implies, if anything, the reverse.

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