From International Socialism (1st series), No.28, Spring 1967, p.31.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
Nationalisation in British Politics
E. Eldon Barry
The nationalisation issue is the great divide of politics. Traditionally, socialists favour nationalisation; Tories oppose it. Yet, imperceptibly, things have changed. Private enterprise has become less private, less enterprising. Instead of the image of the self-confident businessman, owning his own factory, we now have the giant, impersonal monopolies, reliant on State contracts or subsidies. Likewise on the other side of the equation: nationalisation no longer arouses the same responses, the old socialist fervour. Nobody today believes that, thanks to British Rail, we will reach the New Jerusalem.
Most people stand, on this issue, in a state of confusion. Barry’s book, an excellent historical survey of the variety of reasons for advocating nationalisation, helps to show why this is. In the past, with the iniquities of private ownership so glaringly apparent, the emphasis of critics has been centred on getting rid of the boss. In a lazy way, and with not touch thought, nationalisation has been equated with Socialism.
But this will just not do. Throughout the world there is a general tendency for increasing state intervention. If we are going to say that nationalisation equals Socialism, then Stalin’s Russia was the promised land, with countries like South Africa and Israel, where there is a substantial amount of public ownership, not far behind. The way out of this morass of confusion, in my opinion, depends on understanding Marx’s analysis of the tendency for the rate of profit to decline. This, has meant that – to take Britain, for example, some, sectors of the economy have been insufficiently lucrative to attract private investors. Consequently, over the years, they become increasingly inefficient and antiquated. The money for modernisation could come from nowhere but the public coffers. This was the raison d’être for the nationalisation measures of the Labour Government 1945-51: the recovery of the whole economy would have been endangered without cheap transport and fuel.
So the form of ownership is not the decisive question; what matters are the interests in which industry is being run. When considered from this angle, the Attlee Administration’s nationalisation measures are seen to be steps essential to preserve the well-being of capitalism. Hence in 13 years’ Tory rule nothing was done to de-nationalise the mines, railways, electricity, gas. That the Tories learnt to live with nationalisation is not surprising since they were the party to bring the first nationalisation bill before Parliament. In his extremely fine and detailed historical account, Barry unfortunately omits to mention that Lord Palmerston nationalised the Indian railways. The mutiny of 1857 revealed the necessity, from a military standpoint, of moving troops quickly from one place to another. This was hampered by different gauge tracks and lack of centralised coordination. Lord Palmerston’s reason for introducing nationalisation, therefore, was not to run cheap seaside excursions but to exploit the Indian masses more ruthlessly.
Obviously, simple state ownership does not mean socialism. A cursory inspection of the army and prisons prove mis point. What is necessary, the essential additive, is workers’ control, industrial democracy, call it what you will. Without it, we merely have a trend towards state capitalism, a new despotism that might be worse for the workers than the status quo.
Barry realises the dangers. The value of his book, which embodies tremendous research, is that future controversy on this important topic will take place with a clearer historical understanding. It is well worth reading.
Last updated: 3.1.2008