“Common Ownership”: Ourselves v. The Labour Party
At a meeting in the provinces addressed recently by a member of the S.P.G.B. someone in the audience protested against the statement that the S.P.G.B. was the only party that stood for Socialism; and produced a membership card of the Labour Party, wherein occurred the statement that the party stood for “common ownership.” The above difficulty is typical of the state of mind of many workers who support the Labour Party under the impression that they are thereby helping to emancipate the members of their class.
In the first place it is necessary to bear in mind that the membership of the local Labour Parties is small compared with that of the total membership of the Labour Party. The bulk of the membership consists of affiliated Trade Unionists (who may be anything, politically, from Tories to Anarchists). They form the basis for the power of the leaders of the party, who adjust their electoral programmes to the varied ideas of those who pay the piper.) Thus we find in Labour Party programmes a mishmash in which the views of Liberal industrial capitalists and the Trade Union bosses predominate. In these programmes the idea of common ownership finds no place, although the words are used in their object. Common ownership would deprive the capitalists of their property rights, i.e., of their power to exact rent, interest, and profit from the labour of the workers. Common ownership involves a social revolution, the abolition of the mode of living of the ruling class in present-day society. It will be resisted by this class by every means in its power, being directly opposed to its interests.
Let us see how much resistance is offered to the programme of the Labour Party. Details of this were dealt with in last month’s issue of the Socialist Standard (” The Labour Party Conference”).—Even when the Labour Party uses the phrase “common ownership” it is used as if it were synonymous with “public ownership.” “Labour and the Nation,” calls for the “public ownership of the coal, transport and power industries” (p. 47). No intelligent capitalist opposes such measures, in principle.
As the Liberal Industrial Report published in 1928 has it: —
Public concerns of one kind or another . . . already cover so vast a field that the supposed choice between Individualism and Socialism is largely an obsolete issue. An examination of the existing types of Public Concerns shows that the Socialist would gain nothing by assimilating to a single theoretical model a diversity developed by experience to meet actual situations. On the other hand, it would be quite impossible to scrap the elaborate legislation enacted by Governments of every political complexion and hand over our public utilities and railways system to the operation of uncontrolled Individualism. There is, therefore, no question of principle at stake, but only one of degree of expediency. and of method.
(“ Britain’s Industrial Future,” page 456.)
The Socialist is not concerned, as is suggested above, with any “theoretical model.” We have no cut-and-dried straight-jacket into which we wish to thrust industries. We know that the precise; form assumed by the organisation of industry after the revolution will depend as always upon experience and changing conditions. Hence we offer no ready-made plans.
People who are prepared to tolerate and support capitalist ownership (whether private or “public”) are full of plans. They have to be. The problems created by capitalism are so numerous that those engaged in its administration spend their time necessarily in endeavouring to solve them and in finding ways and means of reconciling the antagonistic interests involved. Socialists, on the other hand, recognise that the most fundamental antagonism of all, that between the workers and the capitalists as classes, can find no solution within any form of capitalist ownership. What can it matter to the workers whether they are exploited by a joint-stock company, a public utility corporation set up by a Labour Government, or by a Government Department? During the strike of 1926 drivers and conductors of the London General Omnibus Co. came out along with similar grades in the employ of the London County Council Tramways.
They were members of the same union, members of the same class, with the same interest, hostile to that of the employing class no matter by what the organisation might be, through which the interests of the Capitalists were represented. Only common ownership of the means of living as proposed by the Socialist Party of Great Britain can abolish this conflict of interests, and it is the business of Socialists to make this plain to the workers.
The Labour Party, however, found no difficulty in accepting office with Liberal support, just as it found it easy to win seats in Parliament by means of Liberal programmes. The most advanced proposals of the Labour Party only involve the buying out of groups of capitalists. How can the workers, who have nothing, buy out those who have everything ?
The Labour Party propose to convert shareholders into Government bondholders, enjoying interest guaranteed by the Government. This will leave the working class non-owners in the same position as they are now. .The capitalist class as a whole, being politically organised, would continue to use the State as its executive power; and would also use the Labour Party, as it has already done, to confuse the workers by accepting official responsibility for the administration of capitalism.
Lacking definite Socialist principles the Labour Party can only repeat the disappointments and failures to which it has hitherto led those workers who have placed their trust in it, breaking up into fragments whenever faced by a crisis that demands definite action in the interest of the workers. Having been built up on the “principle” that it was necessary to gain the support of the Liberal section of the capitalists for “reforms,” it can act only as the tool or catspaw of that section.
There is no substitute for the conscious political organisation of the working-class aiming at the common ownership of the means of life. That involves constant opposition to all sections of the master-class, which is represented in this country only by the S.P.G.B.