Skip to Content

Editorial: Fifty Years After The Crisis in the Labour Movement

Just fifty years ago, in 1903, the workers who, in the following year, were to found the S.P.G.B., were weighing up the claims of those who argued that the sure road to emancipation had already been found by the Trades Union Congress and its political offspring, the Labour Party (then known as the Labour Representation Committee). Their view—and a most convincing one it seemed to most workers who had begun to think about the matter—was that the separate unions would conduct the struggle for improved wages and working conditions, the TU.C. would formulate general claims for protective legislation and, along with the Labour Party, would work towards independent working class representation in Parliament. They were able to combine activities at home with the belief that war could be abolished through the international trade union and Labour movement, and their ultimate aim of a reconstruction of society had already been formulated in a resolution passed by the T.U.C. in 1903, which supported “the principle of collective ownership and control of all the means of production and distribution." That such a resolution was passed at that time was due more to the zeal of a politically active minority than to any conviction on the part of the rank and me, but the minority hoped and believed that in time acceptance of this ultimate aim would become general. They were soon congratulating themselves on their success in popularising the demand for “Socialism” when they succeeded in getting more and more workers to become enthusiastic about the prospect of a Labour Government which would introduce, along with numerous social reforms, the general nationalisation of industry.

Against this flowing tide the warning of the S.P.G.B. that the reform of capitalism, Labour administration of capitalism and the extension of State capitalism would solve no working class problem, had little chance of being heard. The S.P.G.B.'s insistence on the paramount need to build up a Socialist movement, having as its sole aim the replacement of world capitalism by a Socialist system of society was fated to be dismissed as a well-intentioned but impractical policy that would soon be forgotten as the trade union-Labour movement triumphantly advanced.

Now, at the recent Trades Union Congress and at the Conference of the Labour Party, the rights and wrongs of that controversy of fifty years ago come to mind once more. But with what a difference after this passage of time!

On a superficial view, and if the opponents of the S.P.G.B. had been correct, the T.U.C. and Labour Party should be celebrating their final victory and the inauguration of the new society they had vaguely dreamed about but never seriously examined. Their membership has grown enormously; they have achieved social reforms in great number and of a magnitude they could hardly have hoped for at the beginning; they have had years of Labour Government and have seen the transfer of large industries to State ownership. Yet, instead of self-congratulation and confident progress to new victories they find their movement split into warring factions. While one group presses for more nationalisation with the kind of arguments they used 30 or 40 years ago the majority of their political and trade union leaders warn the rank and file that such a policy has now become unrealistic and unrelated to the real needs of the present situation. The lengthy report of the T.U.C. General Council that was endorsed by the Congress urged a “go-slow” policy on nationalisation on the grounds, among others, that the hasty and ill-considered extension of nationalisation, particularly to manufacturing industries, would show a failure to appreciate the financial and trading needs of this country and would not be in the interest of the workers.

From the standpoint of those who tacitly accept the position of making the best of British capitalism in a capitalist world this is, of course, a powerful argument and it was not surprising that the Report received the approval of the capitalist Press. But this brings us back to the point we were at fifty years ago, when the S.P.G.B. foretold that the T.U.C.-Labour Party policy meant just that and could mean nothing more.

This is indeed where we came in. Half a century of further experience of capitalism, with its poverty, unemployment and wars powerfully reinforces the case consistently advocated by the Socialist opponents of reformism and State capitalism. Workers seeking their emancipation and the inauguration of a Socialist system of society should now more easily appreciate how unanswerable was and is the case of the Socialist Party of Great Britain.