Labourism—A New Statement of Expedients

A small number of Labour Party members who call themselves “Socialist Union” (formed in 1951), have recently written a booklet called “Socialism—A New Statement of Principles” (Lincolns-Prager, 3s.) It has been reviewed, both favourably and otherwise, in various newspapers and journals, all of which seem to accept the ideas it contains as being the last word in “socialist” thought. This illusion is fostered by the fact that distinction is made in the booklet between the “labour” and “socialist” movements, with the implication that its authors belong to the latter which is supposed to be part of the former. A duality of apparently wanting to run with the hare of discontent with Capitalism and hunt with the hounds of political office is central to the theme of a work which is calculated to please in some way everybody except socialists. We cannot deal here with all the fallacies and false ideas it puts forward, but we can pick out a few that may serve to illustrate our case against Labourism as a whole.

In the introduction the reader is told, in a rather confiding way, that “despite our successes—or perhaps because of them—we are conscious that the society we hoped to build still eludes us. The easy confidence of the past is gone and our way forward is beset with uncertainty.” The question may reasonably be asked: if the society they hoped to build still eludes them, in what have their “successes” consisted? The Socialist Union, by way of trying to meet this point, refer to “an unjustified belittling of the genuine achievements of the Labour Government,” but also recognise that “the effect [of its experience of power since 1945] has not been disillusionment, but confusion and uncertainty of mind” This is the old line of complaint that the followers don’t realise how much better off their leaders have made them, but what is most remarkable is the mention of disillusionment; this is a term not of outward attack but of inward reproach, and even the attempt to show that it is really something else indicates that its presence in the Labour ranks is tacitly acknowledged.

The booklet’s admissions about the results of nationalisation can be construed as a belated confirmation of the S.P.G.B’s. attitude towards it

“the mere act of nationalisation does not automatically change industrial and social relations in the direction we desire. It is a step—in certain industries a necessary step—but no more. Many of the benefits which were expected naturally to flow are not attained unless further action is taken.”

We are accustomed to being told that nationalisation is only a step, but we still want to know what working class interests are involved that make it a necessary one in certain industries and, by implication, an unnecessary one in others. Although they do not say so, it is obvious that the S.U. believe that Labour nationalisation is “in the direction we desire ” but that Conservative nationalisation is not. It all depends on whom the “we” refers to. We are intrigued by the nature of the further action that must be taken before more benefits will flow. If the future benefits are to be of the same order as past ones then this is a very good argument against including nationalisation in further action.

There are numerous examples scattered throughout the booklet of the S.U. tail criticising the Labour Government dog. Thus “the formula of common ownership at least offered one clear line of policy. Abandon it in practice and, unless there is the clearest recognition of our deeper purposes, there may be no line at all, only a tinkering with the present social organisation.” One may wonder why the offer of such a clear line of policy was not taken up, especially since the use of the past tense suggests common ownership as a policy is for some reason no longer an offer. But the second sentence gives the due—”Abandon it in practice . . . tinkering with the present social organisation.” The intervening words are mere padding as far as socialists are concerned.

The S.U. is not averse to a little advertising, presumably for the benefit of capitalists, of the Labour Party’s handling of the workers. “Their wages, even when they are not successful in raising them much above subsistence level, are supplemented by the benefits of the welfare state. This further strengthens their position and their independence.” Such remarks add insult to injury when directed, for example, to the unemployed in textile and other industries. If Labourism “strengthens” the workers’ position like this then employers of labour have every cause to support it, and even to encourage more “strengthening”— it would be a cheap price to pay for the docility of the wage-slaves.

The chapter headed “Ethical Foundations” has a great deal to say about exploitation, human dignity and equality, but the conclusions arrived at are so innocuous and banal that Conservatives and Liberals would be pleased to endorse them. Indeed, George Murray, writing in the Daily Mail expected “that at any moment I might see in this Socialist publication the Churchillian slogan: Set The People Free.” Strangely enough, the booklet also manages to include a number of sentiments that those who are really working for Socialism would not disagree with. The spirit of brotherhood and fellowship feature largely, but the effect is completely spoiled, and any real meaning abstracted from them, by remarks such as “few are so great as to feel a unity with mankind even beyond their nation’s borders” and “even socialists are unready to project the ideal of equality on to a world-wide scale.”

We in the S.P.G.B. have never claimed that there is anything particularly great in our feeling a unity with all mankind. If it were not for the propaganda of misleaders concerned with preserving Capitalism (welfare state notwithstanding), many more people would be better disposed towards their fellows abroad. The S.U. shows now false its claim to being socialist is by imagining that the people who are to build Socialism can do anything other than co-operate with those who hold similar views in all countries.

Results of Reformism

“Just because we have not always recognised that socialist programmes may vary in time and place, and even in name, the belief took root that there is somewhere, even if only in our imaginations, a ‘socialist’ system with its own unique set of institutions.”
“. . . there is no accepted institutional blueprint called socialism.”

Thus has the wheel of Labour reformism turned full circle. Starting out with the idea of gradually reforming Capitalism bit by bit until the change to common ownership would be accomplished, it compromised, collaborated, and cashed in on every grievance to attain political power. Anything was Socialism, and now. after six years of office has brought inevitable disillusionment to its followers, nothing is Socialism. What a bitter pill to swallow this must be for those in the Labour movement who tirelessly worked, as they thought, to abolish Capitalism. Now they are told that it was all an illusion, that the idea for which they made sacrifices was meaningless.

Some of them may remember telling the S.P.G.B. that they had to do “something now” and not just talk about Socialism. It would be easy to taunt, to describe, as some do, as “pathetic” their attempts to salvage what they can from the wreck of a false theory. However we do not believe that this would help them to understand just why Socialism has to be built by people whose actions are always in line with their object. We are not, of course, concerned with those who are in the Labour movement only for what they can personally get out of it—the New Statement of Principles is no doubt just “tactics” to them. But we believe there are many people who, if they read this booklet carefully and think over what it means, will be more inclined to join with the only Socialist Party for the only object that is really worthwhile.

We scarcely need add that the columns of the SOCIALIST STANDARD are open to anyone who wishes to challenge our views, or to seek enlightenment on any of the other points that we have been unable to deal with here.

S. R. P.

Leave a Reply