The Labour Party Conference this year was held in an atmosphere of expectancy and confidence of triumphs to come. Rightly or wrongly, the delegates felt that the rule of the National Government, coming to a close, is not to be renewed, and that the defeats and desertions of 1931 will be forgotten in a sweeping electoral victory not far ahead. Then, with a majority to back up its decisions, a Labour Government will inaugurate a new era in British politics. That is the belief, but Socialists do not share it. Electoral victory maybe—though improbable without a Labour-Liberal alliance of some sort or other—but that victory will be more than perilous; it may well be one of the most disastrous episodes in working-class history, comparable with the post-war “victories” of the Social-Democrats in Germany and Austria, with all their aftermath of violence, despair and savage reaction. Such victory will be not a development towards Socialism, but yet another check to the growth of the Socialist movement. These are hard words. Let us justify them in the light of what was by far the most instructive of the resolutions of the Conference. It was a resolution which the Labour Party’s official organ, the Daily Herald, regarded as of such importance as to merit being featured on the front page. It was carried “by the largest majority that has been polled at the present Conference” (Daily Herald, October 5th). What was this question which divided the votes into a stupendous majority of 2,118,000 on the one side and the tiny minority of 149,000 on the other? Surprising as it may appear to those who regard the Labour Party as a party of Socialists, this huge majority came together in order to demonstrate the Labour Party’s abhorrence of anything smacking of Socialism. It was, to be explicit, a recommendation of the Executive Committee in favour of “fair compensation” for owners and shareholders whose property is nationalised by a Labour Government, the compensation to be based roughly on the present valuation of the property. The proposal which the majority rejected was one put forward by the Socialist League which would have meant depriving the owners of one-half to two-thirds of their property.
Let us, first of all, make it perfectly clear that the Socialist League’s proposal is not Socialism, and that the League, in our view, is almost as muddled in its views as the I.L.P., from which it sprang, and as the Labour Party, to which it is uneasily affiliated. Socialism does not mean State industries run on capitalist lines, either with or without compensation of the existing owners. Socialism means a system of society in which the means of production are owned by society as a whole, a system in which goods will really be produced for use, not for sale and profit-making, and in which there will be no such thing as an income from the ownership of property, whether as land, buildings, plant, shares or Government bonds. These things are plain enough to Socialists, but at present utterly beyond the comprehension of the great majority of members of the Socialist League and Labour Party.
It follows that Socialists are not at all interested in the issue which divides the Socialist League and the Labour Party, as to whether or not the owners should receive full or only part compensation. There can be no such thing as compensation if Socialism is to replace Capitalism. What the owners now possess is the right to an income from property, the right to live without working, the right to exploit the labour of the working-class. There can be no Socialism unless and until the means of production and distribution are taken from them and made over to society for the use of all. The former owners will then enjoy the fruits of associated labour on an equal footing with all other members of society, neither privileged nor suppressed, but as equals. But there can be no compensation. You cannot abolish exploitation and at the same time give the exploiters something equivalent to their former right of exploitation. A slave-owner, deprived of his slaves, could be given property rights of another kind under capitalism. But abolish capitalist wage-slavery and you end exploitation for all time and for all persons.
These elementary truths of Socialism are, of course, unknown to the delegates at Labour Party Conferences, but in their groping, muddle-headed way the Socialist League members feel that there must be some catch in the Labour Party’s bland assurance that there is going to be more of the cake for the workers without decreasing the share of the capitalists—hence their attempt at revolt, which was crushed with such devastating completeness.
It means that the Labour Party has reiterated its belief in “compensation,” that is, in capitalism. It will take office if opportunity arises, determined to apply its numerous and complicated schemes for reorganising industry, raising wages, abolishing unemployment, etc., while retaining all the essentials of capitalism. It will retain rent, interest and profit, the wages system, buying and selling, and the struggle for foreign markets, and will leave the capitalist class still possessed of their property rights, their right to exploit the working class.
The result will be another tragic collapse, tragic because many workers will believe it to be a collapse of Socialism, or proof that political methods are useless. Every individual who lends a hand in the establishment of the Labour Party in power is contributing to that collapse, and is helping to ensure a further lease of life for capitalism, with the likelihood that the subsequent Government may be one of iron-handed, panic-stricken repression.
Before concluding, we may usefully devote a little space to the arguments of those who opposed the Socialist League. Mr. Herbert Morrison, an astute Labour politician, put the case cogently from a Labour Party standpoint when he said that to adopt the Socialist League amendment would frighten the electors, and “You would keep yourself out of political power ” (Daily Herald, October 5th). Mr. Morrison here, as elsewhere, shows himself a clever exponent of half-truths. He will say, as we do, that there can be no Socialism without political power, and no political power without the support of the electors. He knows, too (but is very careful not to proclaim it at times and in places where it may prove embarrassing to the electoral prospects of the Labour Party), that there is no solution to the poverty problem other than Socialism, that all the highfalutin schemes of his Party will leave the problem unsolved. That is where the Morrisons— those who are interested in political careers—necessarily part company from the Socialist. We face up to the logic of the situation. Mr. Morrison and his Party dare not do so. They dare not proclaim from the public platform that there can be no Socialism without an organised majority of Socialists, with its logical corollary that any acquirement of political power before that organised Socialist majority exists is a snare and delusion to the working class. Mr. Morrison knows, and admits, that a Government cannot go beyond the mandate and understanding of the electorate. He knows that a Labour Government cannot introduce Socialism, which the electorate and the bulk of its own members neither want nor understand. He knows that the reform measures the electorate will permit and endorse are not Socialism, and will not solve the problems facing the working class, who form the overwhelming majority of the electorate. He knows, therefore, that a Labour Government cannot do the one thing which alone can solve the problems it is promising to solve. Only Mr. Morrison and his colleagues can say why they play this double game. Is it vaulting ambition, reckless of consequences? Is it the insane over-confidence of the “leader,” persuading himself against his own knowledge and experience, that his god-like gifts will enable him to lead the “mob” to impossible victory ? Is it, after all, merely that underneath the surface-smartness of the successful Labour politician there is a profound stupidity and ignorance about the realities of capitalism and Socialism?
Whatever the answer, the penalty for the working class is appalling to contemplate. Let the leaders and followers alike stop and consider the spectacle of savage Hitlerite capitalism before launching out blindly on the path which led the German Social-Democrats to destruction, and may lead to a similar end in this country.