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Revolutionary Road

Alex Callinicos

The Revolutionary Road to Socialism

The Reformist Tradition

Can Socialism Come Through Parliament?

Throughout this century working people in Britain have placed their hopes in the Labour Party as the means through which they could improve their lot and achieve a socialist society. Similar parties have played the same role in other parts of the world.

The political strategy pursued by these parties is that of reformism, or social democracy. (The breakaway SDP is a johnnie-come-lately, representing the extreme right wing of this tradition.) The idea behind this strategy is a simple one. However much more powerful the capitalists are than workers, the latter have one weapon: the vote. When it comes to election time, Sir Arnold Weinstock of GEC has the same power as a school cleaning lady. Moreover, there are, as we have seen, very few capitalists. By banding together and using the vote, workers can win a majority of seats in parliament, and thus capture political power.

The attractions of this strategy are obvious. It’s simple and it seems to threaten no messy or violent confrontation with the capitalist class. Why, then, after more than eighty years of following the reformist recipe, are we no closer to socialism than we were in 1900? There are three main reasons why this is so. The first is to do with how power is organised within the capitalist state on a day-today basis. Parliament is supposedly ‘sovereign’ – that is, it is meant to have supreme power in the state. The reality is quite different.

In practice, the elected chamber of parliament, the House of Commons, has little effective control over what the government does. Parliament passes the legislation presented to it by the cabinet. And even ministers are hemmed in by their permanent civil servants. Richard Crossman, a Labour cabinet minister in the 1960s, described in his diaries how his officials worked to tie things up behind his back, and sought to present him with faits accomplis. The television programme Yes Minister graphically shows the process at work.

The result is that Labour governments, once in power, find themselves willy-nilly pushed into merely continuing existing policies rather than making a radical break with the past. A good illustration is defence policy.

The 1945 Labour government was dominated by ministers who had served in Churchill’s wartime coalition, and who were used to working closely with the Americans. The Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, was one of the main architects of NATO. Prime Minister Clement Attlee took the decision to build an atomic bomb without even consulting the cabinet. And Chancellor of the Exchequer Hugh Gaitskell introduced a budget in 1951 which massively boosted defence spending. The Tories could not have done better.

The pattern was the same in later governments. In the 1960s Harold Wilson and his Defence Secretary, Dennis Healey, bought Polaris missile submarines in defiance of official policy decided at Labour Party Conference. In the 1970s James Callaghan agreed secretly to modernise these weapon-systems, and took the first steps towards having Cruise missiles in Britain.

But even when Labour governments do attempt to introduce new policies, they are usually prevented from doing so by economic pressures. As we have seen, capitalism today is an international system. This is most obviously so at the level of production, with multinational companies organising on a global scale.

Finance is also organised internationally. The big banks lend money to firms and governments all over the world. Capital is lent and borrowed on the money markets, outside the control of any government. Multinational corporations dispose of vast funds which they use to play these markets. By switching money from one currency to another they can force governments to change policies.

This is precisely what happened to Harold Wilson’s Labour government in October 1964. It had been elected after thirteen years of Tory rule on a platform of far from radical reforms designed to modernise the British economy. These policies were not, however, acceptable to the money men, who switched their funds out of Britain, causing a slump in the value of the pound. Harold Wilson describes what happened:

The Governor of the Bank of England became a frequent visitor. It was his duty ... to represent to the Chancellor and the Prime Minister the things that were being said abroad or in the City; to indicate to the Government the issues on which, in the City’s view, it was necessary to win confidence ...

That is why we had to listen night after night to demands that there should be immediate cuts in Government expenditure, and particularly in those parts of Government expenditure which related to the social services ...

Not for the first time, I said that we had now reached the situation where a newly elected Government with a mandate from the people were being told, not so much by the Governor of the Bank of England but by international speculators, that the policies on which we had fought the election could not be implemented ... The Governor confirmed that this was, in fact, the case.

Wilson caved in, and implemented the cuts demanded. The same thing happened again when he returned to office in March 1974. Labour had defeated a reactionary Tory government on a programme which promised a number of ‘basic Socialist goals’, including ‘a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people and their families.’ Within little more than a year these promises had been scrapped. Wage-controls were introduced, and Tony Benn was removed from the crucial post of Secretary for Industry. Dennis Healey introduced cuts in public spending which laid the basis of Thatcher’s monetarist policies. Workers’ living standards fell more drastically than they had for a century.

Nor is this purely a British disease. In June 1981 François Mitterrand and the French Socialist Party swept to power, ending twenty-three years of right-wing rule. They proceeded to implement a programme – much more radical than anything Labour has ever tried – of large-scale nationalisation.

The result was an acute financial crisis. Money poured out of the country as French and foreign capitalists passed a vote of no confidence in the Socialist government. The franc slumped. In the end, Mitterrand surrendered, and adopted an austerity programme involving a cut in real wages. (Like Harold Wilson in 1975, he also sacked his left-wing Industry Minister.)

One lesson of this experience is that socialism cannot be achieved by any individual country acting on its own. The capitalist system is an international one, and can be overthrown only on a world scale. Yet Labour, and other reformist parties, persist in pursuing nationalist policies.

Labour’s economic programme amounts to giving a large financial boost to the British economy, and using import controls to prevent foreign firms from taking advantage of this. But Labour does not explain, despite the experience of Harold Wilson and 1964, how they will prevent this economic expansion from being strangled by a financial crisis engineered by the money men and the multinationals.

But what would stop a new-style Labour government, one that was aware of the pressures from the civil service and the multinationals, and was determined to combat them, from succeeding? Here we run into the third, and most fundamental obstacle across the parliamentary road to socialism.

Reformist politicians tend to assume that the state is neutral. In other words, they believe that it can be used in the interests of working people. They may denounce the more undemocratic features of the state – the House of Lords, say, or (if they are feeling very brave) the monarchy. But they argue that once these features have been removed, everything will be OK. Left-wing councillors demand that the police should be made ‘accountable’, but they accept that the police are ‘neutral’.

This assumption is based on a fallacy. It ignores the truth, uncovered by Marx, that ‘political power ... is the organised power of one class for oppressing another.’ The state is nor neutral. The way in which it is organised reflects and seeks to defend the interests of big business.

‘Society is based on the death of men’, the American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes liked to say. The core of the state is its repressive apparatus, the bodies of highly trained, well-paid, armed men and women who make up the army and the police. Their job is to defend the existing order against any threats to it. Usually this means no more than the police harassing black teenagers and seeing lorries through picket lines. But in a period of social and political upheaval the army would be used to crush any serious challenge to the wealth and power of the capitalist class.

This would happen even if that challenge came from the legally elected government. Anyone who doubts this should remember what happened in Chile. In 1970 the socialist Salvador Allende was elected president on a platform which sought to transform society by peaceful, constitutional means. The result was a series of confrontations with the American multinationals, the middle classes, and even some workers. Finally, on 11 September 1973 the army seized power. Tens of thousands of socialist and trade-union militants were slaughtered, including Allende himself. There are many parochial British socialists who would say that Britain is a very different place from Chile: we do things differently here, thanks to a centuries-old tradition of peaceful and legal change. They forget that in the seventeenth century an English parliament cut a king’s head off, and that in the early nineteenth century the army was used to crush working-class revolts in northern England and Scotland.

Those who have illusions in the mild and peace-loving nature of our rulers should consider the Falklands War. A Tory government, with the grudging or enthusiastic support of the entire establishment, was prepared to squander a thousand lives and billions of pounds to recapture a useless lump of rock in the south Atlantic. Can anyone doubt that the capitalist class they represent would be prepared to wade through blood rather than lose control of the economy?

Nearly a hundred years ago, in 1886, the greatest British revolutionary, William Morris, pointed out the basic error made by the reformists:

There are undoubtedly many who are genuine democrats who have it in their heads that it is both possible and desirable to capture the constitutional Parliament and turn it into a real popular assembly, which, with the people behind it, might lead us peaceably and constitutionally into the great Revolution ... Those who think we can deal with our present system in this piece-meal way very much underestimate the strength of the tremendous organisation under which we live, and which appoints to each of us his place, and if we do not chance to fit it, grinds us down till we do. Nothing but a tremendous force can deal with this force: it will not suffer itself to be dismembered, not to lose anything which really is its essence without putting forth all its force in resistance; rather than lose anything which it considers of importance, it will pull the roof of the world down upon its head.

Nothing that has happened since 1886 has done anything to take away any of the force of these words. Rather, they stand up as a brilliant prophecy of the failure of reformist socialism in the twentieth century.

Far from being neutral, above classes, the state is an instrument of class rule. It is the final guarantee of class power. Reformism starts out trying to use this state. It ends up serving its class interests.

At one level this means passing laws to defend capitalist class interests: the attacks on trade-union rights being carried through by the Tories began as proposals by the 1964–70 Labour government. But ultimately it means defending the state against the very workers the reformists claim to represent.

So, in 1918–19, the Social Democratic Party in Germany, elected by massive workers’ votes, allied themselves with the Imperial General Staff of the army to prevent the workers taking power. Together they presided over the use of right-wing soldiers (the Freikorps, many of whom later joined Hitler’s Nazis) to murder thousands of left-wing workers throughout Germany.

Likewise, when the 30-year fascist dictatorship in Portugal was overthrown in 1974, it was the Portuguese Socialist Party who allied themselves to the Catholic Church and right-wing army officers to defeat demands from workers and rank-and-file soldiers for a socialist republic.

Labour ministers in Britain have been loyal servants of the British state. Merlyn Rees and Roy Mason, successively Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in the last Labour government, denied political rights to republican prisoners, allowed the use of SAS assassination squads, and presided over the use of torture by the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

The Nature of the Labour Party

There are many socialists in the Labour Party who would agree with many, if not all of the arguments set out above. Nevertheless, they believe that things need not be the same in the future. The Labour Party can be won to genuine socialism, they say. After all, it is the party of the working class. Socialists should be inside the Labour Party trying to push it leftwards.

The trouble with this argument is that it ignores the nature of the Labour Party, and so flies in the face of eighty years of experience.

Every attempt to win the Labour Party to fighting socialism has failed. True enough, the Labour Party is bound to the organised working-class movement. But the link is provided by the trade-union leaders. It was they who set up the Labour Representation Committee in 1900, to provide the trade unions with a voice in Parliament.

It was only in 1918, under the impact of the Russian revolution, that Labour adopted its present constitution, whose famous Clause Four calls for the ‘common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange’. But the party is to this day dominated by the trade union block vote at conference.

Trade unions are contradictory institutions. On the one hand, they mobilise the collective strength which workers have at the point of production. On the other hand, the trade unions operate within the limits of capitalism. They seek, not to overthrow it, but to improve workers’ position within the existing system. Their aim is not to end exploitation, but to renegotiate the terms on which workers are exploited. As Marx put it, they deal with effects, not the causes of these effects.

The trade unions, even if they are born out of elemental struggles between labour and capital, inevitably produce a layer of full-time officials whose task it is to negotiate a compromise between these two classes. In Britain this process began as long ago as the 1840s and 1850s, after the defeat of a wave of strikes. Sidney and Beatrice Webb commented that ‘during these years we watch a shifting of the leadership in the trade-union world from the casual enthusiast and irresponsible agitator to a class of permanent salaried officers chosen out of the rank and file of trade unionists for their superior business capacity.’ A trade-union official is in a very different position from the workers he represents. He is removed from the discipline of the shopfloor, from its dirt and dangers, from the daily conflicts with foreman and manager, from the fellowship of his workmates. Now he works in an office, and almost certainly earns more than his members do.

Moreover, his earnings no longer depend on the ups and downs of the economy – he no longer has to rely on getting overtime, nor will he be hit by short-time or lay-offs. If he negotiates a redundancy agreement, his own job is not at stake. Very often he has not been elected, his appointment may be for life.

Continually involved in negotiations with management, the trade-union official comes to see bargaining, compromise, the reconciliation of labour and capital, as the very stuff of trade unionism. Strikes become a nuisance, disrupting the bargaining process, maybe threatening the union’s funds. As Rosa Luxemburg put it: ‘the organisation ... from being a means has gradually changed into an end in itself, a precious thing, to which the interests of the struggles should be subordinated.’

The conservative role played by trade-union officials within the labour movement thus springs from their social position. It isn’t a matter of individual trade-union leaders having right-wing views. On the contrary, even if their political beliefs are apparently very left-wing, they will still try to hold back workers in struggle. The best example of this in Britain was the performance in the 1970s of Jack Jones of the Transport and General Workers Union, and Hugh Scanlon of the Engineers. Dubbed by the press as the ‘Terrible Twins’ for their militant socialist views when they were elected, Jones and Scanlon turned out to be remarkably moderate in practice. In 1972, a year of the greatest working-class victories since before the General Strike, Scanlon did his best to prevent the wave of engineering factory occupations which swept Manchester, while Jones tried to stop the dockers from taking on the Heath government over the Industrial Relations Act.

Once the Tories had finally been thrown out in the election of 1974, Jones and Scanlon threw all their efforts into supporting the new Labour government, even if that meant sacrificing their own members’ interests. The result was three years of wage controls, which led to a marked decline in working-class living standards. The same sort of pattern has been revealed by trade-union leaders more recently. For example, the 1982 Health Service dispute involved widespread effort and sacrifice by the hospital workers, and won a significant degree of support from other workers. The most important reason why all this came to nothing was the consistent refusal of the union leaders, whether ‘moderates’ like Albert Spanswick or left-wingers like Rodney Bickerstaffe, to call an all-out strike.

There is, therefore, a continual conflict within the trade unions between the full-time officials and the rank and file. The trade union bureaucracy is bound, by its position in society, to defend the existing order of things. The trade unions are, as a result, a conservative force within the Labour Party, which has always been run by an alliance of the parliamentary leadership and the big union bosses hostile to radical socialist policies.

Each successive attempt by the left to win control of the Labour Party has therefore been crushed. In 1921 the newly-formed Communist Party was twice refused permission to affiliate. Local Labour Parties which joined the Communist-led National Left-Wing Movement were expelled. Even the moderately left-wing Independent Labour Party despaired of converting Labour to socialism and disaffiliated in 1932 after Labour Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald had broken away and formed a National Government in collaboration with the Tories.

Some successes were won in the turmoil after MacDonald’s betrayal. The 1932 Labour Party Conference defied the National Executive and voted for sweeping nationalisations. But these gains were short-lived, and in 1939 Stafford Cripps, Aneurin Bevan, and other left-wing leaders were expelled.

Cripps was later re-admitted and took a path that was to be followed by later left-wing leaders. In the 1945 Labour government he became Chancellor of the Exchequer, implementing austerity policies which forced down workers’ living standards. In October 1946 Cripps declared that ‘it would be almost impossible to have worker-controlled industry in Britain, even if it were on the whole desirable.’

The same pattern was repeated in the 1950s. Aneurin Bevan resigned from the Attlee government in April 1951 in protest against a budget massively boosting defence spending and imposing prescription charges in the National Health Service. The Bevanites, as the left came to be called, won considerable support among the constituency parties. Once again, the National Executive clamped down. The Bevanites were forced to give up campaigning among the party rank and file, and Bevan himself narrowly escaped expulsion in 1955. By the 1957 Conference, as shadow Foreign Secretary, he was denouncing unilateral nuclear disarmament as an ‘emotional spasm’.

The left-wing revival of recent years has followed the same course. The public sector strikes of the 1978–9 ‘winter of discontent’ and Labour’s election defeat in 1979 flung the party into disarray. The left were able to win a series of conference victories thanks to the support of trade-union leaders disgruntled with Labour’s performance in office. But the left’s advance was based on foundations of sand. The union block vote that had passed their resolutions could as easily be used against them. At the 1982 Conference it was, installing a right-wing National Executive and backing a purge of the Militant tendency.

The left has never been able to unsaddle the alliance of right-wing parliamentary leadership and trade-union bosses – and not only because of the way voting at party conference is rigged in their favour. The Labour Party is especially unsuitable terrain for winning support for socialist politics. The reason for the party’s existence is to win elections, and its organisation reflects this fact. Constituency and ward parties, as their names suggest, are based on electoral divisions.

Elections break up the working class into a collection of individuals. Each of us votes on our own. It is an individual act. But as individuals we are especially vulnerable to establishment propaganda. We are subject to the barrage of right-wing ideas from television and newspapers.

Elections are supposed to be highly political occasions. In fact the opposite is true. The last thing that politicians want to talk about at election-time is politics. What they want to talk about is votes. And the less you talk about politics the more votes you’re likely to win – otherwise, you might offend someone.

The trade-union leaders who use their block votes against the left are thus being entirely logical. They want to see Labour win elections, and they know that radical socialist policies are vote-losers. So they impose a ‘moderate’ leadership on the party.

One of the most insidious things about the Labour Party is how it corrupts those who seek to change it. They may start off hoping for revolutionary change. But gradually they adapt to the environment in which they find themselves.

Political activity comes to mean moving resolutions at ward meetings, or canvassing at election time. Those involved tend to lose touch with ordinary working people. Sometimes they lose touch with reality itself – as the Labour left has done in the past few years, when, absorbed in their paper triumphs at conference, they ignored the massive defeats suffered all around them by the workers for whom they claim to fight.

The radical firebrands end up as safe members of the party establishment – Stafford Cripps, Aneurin Bevan, Michael Foot. No doubt they will be followed by others.

The Labour Party is a dead end for socialists. More than eighty years have seen a succession of Labour governments which have sometimes succeeded in improving workers’ lives but which have left the citadels of capitalist power intact. And now the party’s support is dwindling even among workers. With four million on the dole, less than two-fifths of all trade unionists voted Labour in 1983.

It is time to look for an alternative to Labour. We need socialism more urgently than ever. But it won’t come through parliament and the Labour Party.

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Last updated: 2 June 2015