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Ray Challinor

Labour Party

Senile socialism

(July 1986)

From Socialist Worker Review, No.89, July/August 1986, pp.12-13.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

IN HIS Diary in Exile Trotsky refers to a shock people suddenly experience – the sudden realisation of being old. Slowly, relentlessly, day by day, changes are imperceptibly occurring. Then a task usually easily accomplished – climbing a hill or running for a bus – proves to be too much for one’s dwindling powers.

It is my contention the same principle applies to the Labour Party. Born 86 years ago, it has long since lost the bloom of youth, the rosy years of young promise. Past, too, is the mature phase of positive achievement. Today senile dementia has set in: no longer has it any intellectual grasp of where it is or where it is going.

The steady decline takes many forms. In 1951 the Labour Party had an individual membership of 1,051,000; now it is down to 310,000. At the 1951 general election Labour secured 13,266,592 votes; at the last general election, despite a large increase in the number of people entitled to vote, it received only 8,456,934, the worst result since the MacDonald debacle of 1931.

But this deterioration should not be considered purely in quantitative terms. As its links with the grassroots of the class have atrophied, so workers’ expectations of what Labour might accomplish have also withered.

It is. impossible to envisage the scenes of wild excitement that greeted the election of the Clydeside rebels in 1922 ever being repeated. Then an ecstatic crowd of 200,000 assembled at Glasgow’s Trongate station to cheer their heroes as they set off on their journey to parliament.

The new MPs included Jimmy Maxton, the right-hand man of John Maclean, Dave Kirkwood, convenor of the militant Park-head Forge, the recently imprisoned Emmanuel Shinwell and John Wheatley, the great tactician of the Clyde Workers’ Committee. And who did they meet when they arrived in London? None other than George Lansbury MP, just out of convict’s uniform after successfully leading Poplar council’s defiance of the government.

These were men who had suffered in the class struggle, established strong links with the labour movement and were also personally dedicated to the abolition of capitalism. What a contrast with the well-heeled lawyers, smug middle class and upwardly mobile who grace the Labour benches today! Yet how much did Clyde-side rebels accomplish? As David Kirkwood honestly admits in his autobiography – very little.

This is the problem that has to be faced – a growing credibility gap. Down through the decades high hopes have been followed by dashed hopes, illusions in fundamental change through parliamentary politics has been followed by disillusionment. As a consequence, it has been possible to obtain a more realistic assessment of limitations of Labour-style organisations.

Before the First World War Trotsky regarded the Labour Party’s German equivalent, the SPD, as the socialist jewel of the Second International while Lenin thought that the edition of the SPD’s paper supporting the imperialist conflict, must be a police forgery.

They can, perhaps, be forgiven for their mistaken appraisals. However, anybody who made the similar mistake today should be diagnosed incurably insane. And why? Because 70 further years of German SPD theory and practice have helped to make it abundantly clear what its position is in the political firmament.

Any party that simply administers capitalism has to act in the interest of capital and against the interests of labour – in other words, of necessity, it adopts anti-working class measures.

Even the most successful reformist governments don’t buck this rule. Take the Attlee administration (1945-51). Some of the implications of its dirty deeds are only now becoming fully apparent.

From the outset of the Cold War, the Labour government backed US capitalism, a move that involved joining NATO, cutting real wages to fund increased arms expenditure and conducting a purge, albeit on a smaller scale than in McCarthyite America, of so-called subversives.

While the secret services superintended the sacking of left-wingers, we had no idea that, at the same time, they were cooperating with the CIA to secure the escape to South America of Nazi war criminals like Klaus Barbie, the butcher of Lyons.

Likewise the Labour government secretly manufactured the first British nuclear weapons. Neither the British people nor parliament were consulted about the decision. It concealed as well from the public the facts about radiation. The first civil defence manual, published in 1950, had pages 39 to 45 omitted at the last moment.

Only now is it known that this was done because the government got cold feet, fearing the panic which might be caused if the genetic effects of radiation became general knowledge.

Critics, though, can point quite legitimately to the Attlee administration’s positive achievements. But these reforms need to be seen in context. A widely diverse and contradictory set of forces interact to determine whether or not, at any particular time, reforms will be introduced. Of these, two stand out in importance.

First, there is the depth of feeling, organisation and resolve among the ruled to secure change. Second, there is the ability – or lack of ability – of the existing social order to grant concessions.

In 1945 working people were militant. A widespread determination prevailed that the promises of a bright new world, made during the war by politicians to bolster morale, would have to be kept. More to the point, over five million had served in the armed forces, thereby coming to possess military knowledge that could be put to dangerous use.

When placed alongside a powerful trade union movement, equally determined to see change, their power proved irresistible, particularly since the British ruling class, compromised by appeasement, had largely been discredited. Even that old fool Lord Hailsham, then known as Quintin Hogg, read the situation correctly: he saw the alternatives were either reforms or revolution.

The Attlee administration brought in reforms, so lessening the tensions of transition from war to peace. It could do this because the economy, more healthy than today, could bear the extra cost of all these welfare measures. By 1951, once the ruling class felt more powerful and secure, the Attlee government had served its purpose. It could be replaced by a Tory one.

Even so, the post-war boom continued to make concessions. Whereas at the present time, in contrast, increasing competition and depressed profit margins make reforms a too expensive luxury. Indeed, throughout the world, from USA to Scandinavia, the tendency is to whittle away welfare concessions already granted.

All this places Neil Kinnock in a predicament. The essence of reformism is reforms, the belief that things can be gradually improved, transforming the system without the painful class conflicts involved in revolution.

In the long run, reformism without reforms – or, rather, with existing reforms countermanded – does not remain a viable proposition. Moreover, unlike revolutionary socialism, where a greater understanding of the past helps to strengthen the cause, with reformism it has the reverse effect.

Not only negative things, like the already-mentioned nuclear skulduggery and secret service machinations, have a damaging effect, but also the positive things, the triumphs of which Labourism is proud, turn from gold to dross.

From a 1986 standpoint, the Attlee administration leaves Kinnock a doubtful legacy. He is liable to be asked: How was it possible to have full employment then but not now? Why could they afford a comprehensive welfare state, from the cradle to the grave, and not us? What made it possible for there to be a completely free National Health Service in 1946 – no charges for prescriptions, dental treatment or spectacles – whereas Labour regards it as totally impractical 40 years later?

Any Labour Party member who suggested a future Labour government should re-introduce these and other progressive measures brought in by Attlee would be making a suggestion so wild, so left wing, he (or she) would be in danger of being expelled from the party as an undercover supporter of the Militant Tendency.

Actually, the policy of the Labour Party today is of historic significance – in its entire 86 years existence it has never been so reactionary. Kinnock has been careful not to commit himself to repairing the damage done by Thatcherism since 1979, let alone restoring the swingeing public expenditure cuts of Chancellor of the Exchequer Denis Healey in 1976, when Healey embraced monetarism.

Although during the last decade inequality has grown immeasurably, Kinnock has made it clear he will not repeat the pledge – made in Labour’s 1974 election manifesto but not kept – to see there was ‘a significant but irreversible switch in the distribution of the national income from rich to poor’.

Kinnock’s poverty of vision would match the continued mass poverty; a growing hard-core of unemployed would be left to speculate how a Labour government today could not accomplish what a Labour government did 40 years ago, coming into office, running a delapidated economy, after a highly costly and destructive world war.

Obviously, sooner or later, Kinnock will encounter stiff opposition from socialists, both within and outside the Labour Party. His predecessors, finding themselves in the same situation in the past, have always been able to turn to right-wing thinkers, like Crosland, Gaitskell, Douglas Jay and Strachey.

However outrageous the conduct of Labour leaders, these provided a theoretical underpinning for it, a plausible justification, at least in some people’s eyes. But in today’s cold climate, it must be an embarrassment to Kinnock to turn to these right-wing reactionaries of yesteryear, a painful experience of how wrong the theoreticians of the Labour right were.

All their writings were profoundly influenced by the prolonged post-war boom and the illusions it engendered. The assumption was confidentially made that revolutionary change was unnecessary as all the fundamental problems of society had been solved. What lay ahead was a vista of uninterrupted progress. Keynes had refuted Marx; full employment was here to stay; the national income would continue to grow. Every sentence exuded optimism.

Anthony Crosland was the doyen of this school of thought. His book, The Future of Socialism, was the bible of the Labour right. At the beginning of the book, he contemptuously dismisses what he refers to as the fundamentalism of the left:

‘... in my view Marx has little or nothing to offer the contemporary socialist, either in respect of practical policy, or the correct analysis of our society, or even of the right conceptual tools or framework.’

You see – and here hold on to your seats! – Crosland thinks it is wrong to characterise contemporary society as capitalist. To back this assertion, Crosland pointed to profound changes, altering fundamentally the basis of Britain:

  1. The state played a greater role in decision-making;
  2. Economic control of companies had moved from shareholders to a salaried managerial group;
  3. Industrial capital’s influence, anyway, has been curtailed by social and political influences;
  4. Wealth has become much more evenly divided;
  5. Capitalist ideology (individualism, belief in private enterprise, etc.) had little or no influence in present-day Britain.

Crosland believed society’s existing structure was fundamentally sound and that in such circumstances, workers can be assured that large-scale class conflicts, the industrial battles that characterised the inter-war period, belong to the bad old days, never to return:

‘One cannot imagine today a deliberate offensive alliance between Government and employers against the unions on the 1921 or 1925-6 or 1927 model, with all the brutal paraphernalia of wage cuts, national lock-outs and anti-union legislation; or, say, a serious attempt to enforce, as so often happened in the 1920s, a coal policy to which the miners bitterly objected.’

(Obviously, Crosland is correct: the 1984-5 coal dispute must have been a figment of the miners’ fevered imagination!) Consequently, Crosland concludes all major problems have been solved. What remains to be done is social engineering. More and more reforms, strengthening the welfare state and moving Britain towards Crosland’s ideal socialist society – Sweden!

All this may seem weird and old-fashioned, rather like the clothes of a bye-gone age, but this should not prevent us asking searching questions about Crosland’s The Future of Socialism, published first in 1956.

In the past 30 years it has been Keynes, not Marx, who has been sent to the economists’ knackers’ yard. As his methods of regulating the economy have been discarded, does this mean that there is no way of securing lasting full employment in a present-day society?

Was not Crosland’s analysis patently wrong that led him to conclude capitalism had collapsed? Would not the re-emergence of crises, increasing frequently and increasingly severe, rather lead to the conclusion that Marx’s analysis is fundamentally sound? And haven’t the theories of Marx, unlike those of Crosland and Co, stood the test of time?

The theory and practice of reformism has never been in such bad shape. Its understanding of the world has never been poorer. Its ability to secure reforms never so unpromising. But this will not deter Neil Kinnock in his dogged pursuit of high office.

What differentiates him from those that went before him is his limited political horizon, the meagreness of his appetite for change.

Not for him the ideal of a New Jerusalem; rather he would be content to administer things as they are. Indeed, Kinnock could be described as a believer in utopian capitalism, a system without inner contradictions. It never has existed – it never will.

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Last updated: 10 April 2010