Why Socialists oppose the Labour Party

The Socialist Party of Great Britain is, and always has been, opposed to the Labour Party. We are often asked why. People who think that the Labour Party has Socialism as its aim cannot understand how the Socialist Party can be hostile to the Labour Party. And when we explain that the Labour Party’s aim is not at all Socialism as we understand it they are still not satisfied. They say that even if this is true—how can we be opposed to all the praiseworthy and progressive things the Labour Party is trying to do; why don’t we give them a helping hand?

The answer to this question lies in a difference of theory about human society, and in particular about the Capitalist social system in which we live. The Socialist Party holds one theory and the Labour Party holds a quite different one. Is Capitalism a system of society with economic laws that regulate its working and limit the policies and actions of governments—as Socialists hold—or is it a mere chance mixture of “bad” and “good” institutions that can be improved at will by any government that wants to do so—as the Labour Party believes?

Capitalism is a System
We hold that Capitalism is a system, not a chance collection; that it is based on the class ownership of society’s means of production and distribution, with the working class living by selling its labour-power for wages or salaries and the Capitalist class living by owning, their income being derived from the sale at a profit of the commodities produced by the working class but not owned by them. This is the framework within which governments of Capitalism operate, their concern all the time being with ways and means of keeping Capitalism running as smoothly as maybe so that the making of profit can proceed, for if it fails Capitalism comes to a standstill.

The Labour Party as a whole has always rejected this view. It holds that a Labour Government can do what it likes; that it only has to draw up plans for reforms, get them endorsed by the electorate and then put them into operation. This has all the appeal of a seemingly simple commonsense, practical and direct approach to social problems; more attractive than the Socialist Party’s insistence that a new and better social system can only be built up on a new foundation, that is by replacing the class ownership of Capitalism by common ownership and by replacing the production of commodities for sale at a profit with the production of goods solely for use, without either profit or sale.

The one thing wrong with the Labour Party theory is that it is false. Not that they have not tried to carry out their programmes but each measure introduced has failed to work in the way intended; and the whole lot add up to a superficial tinkering with the system that leaves Capitalism essentially unchanged and unweakened.

Nothing has turned out as the Labour Party expected it would. Hence the disillusionment and apathy rife in that Party’s ranks, the growing despair of the possibility of progress at all and Mr. Attlee admitting a few months ago “We are nowhere near the kind of society we want. We have an infinitely long way to go . . . ”—(Daily Herald, 6/6/55.).

Let us examine the record of the Labour Party. In every field its earlier lofty aims have been whittled away, distorted or forgotten. For decades it claimed to be anti-Liberal and anti-Conservative, anti-war and anti-conscription, but it has supported two world wars as part of a Coalition Government and alongside the Liberals and Tories. It preached disarmament but built the Atom Bomb and supported the H-Bomb, and achieved the sorry distinction of being the first British Government for a 100 years to impose conscription in times of peace.

It said it would support higher wages, but was the inventor in 1947 of the policy of “wage restraint” now carried on by the Tories. It promised confidently to reduce the cost of living, but its years of office saw prices steadily rising, including the deliberate act of raising them through the devaluation of the pound in 1949. It opposed the use of troops in strikes and then used them itself and prosecuted strikers who, in 1950, struck in defiance of an old Act of Parliament.

Of course, to all these charges, Mr. Attlee would reply that he and his colleagues could not help themselves; they did not want to go to war, impose conscription, put up prices and restrain wage increases, but were forced by circumstances beyond their control. It is, indeed, true that a Labour Government that takes on the administration of Capitalism (having no mandate to introduce Socialism) has not much choice about how it does the job. To every well-meaning proposal to do something because it is sensible and in the interest of humanity Capitalism retorts that “the system” will not allow it, as indeed it will not. At the present time world markets are overshadowed by enormous quantities of unsaleable wheat and other food products held in store in the U.S.A., Canada and Australia. Since have the world’s population are undernourished common sense would suggest giving it away or selling it cheaply, but the proposal of the American Government to do this was met with panic protests from Canada and elsewhere; for if the American Government gives the stuff away it will close the market to Canadian and Australian wheat and threaten ruin to farmers in those and other countries.

Because we live under Capitalism the most useful and serviceable thing the American Government could do would be to burn the lot or dump it in the sea and keep agriculture prosperous by encouraging the farmers to grow some more; until that too has to be destroyed.

There used to be a demand in Labour Party circles for “work or full maintenance” for the unemployed, on the face of it a reasonable demand, but one which is now never heard of. It was socially reasonable but capitalistically impractical, for if the unemployed could get as much as those at work Capitalism would break down.

In the matter of profit the wrong theory of the Labour Party misled them in an almost unbelievable way. They thought they could “take the profit out of Capitalism” either by limiting profits and dividends or by nationalisation. Nothing would convince them of the truth that profit is the driving force of Capitalism without which it runs to a stop. The Labour idea was as crudely stupid as to talk of taking the explosive out of dynamite or the alcohol out of whisky. In practice therefore they had to have their nationalised undertakings run on profit making lines, and had to drop the idea of abolishing profit.

At one time, too, they were all in favour of equalitarianism and the abolition of the contrasts of riches and poverty, but Capitalism, while they were in office, taught them the absurdity of supposing that you can run Capitalism on equalitarian lines (The Communists in Russia have kept pace with the British Labour leaders in the flight from equalitarianism and for the same reason).

All along the line it is the same experience. The attractive ideal of the reformer goes through the mill of Capitalist legislation and comes out as an unlovely pillar of the Capitalist system, so that the last state is no better than the one before; the unorganised private charity and workers’ self help schemes of the 19th century have been replaced by the cold blooded, monster known as the National Insurance scheme with its law-enforced contributions, its mocking pretence of adequately meeting needs, its incomprehensible maze of regulations barring claims and its fines and imprisonment for non-compliance. If the reformists are not swept away by the growth of the Socialist movement the next 50 years will be spent on the campaigns of rival parties for pettifogging reforms of that reform.

As was argued by the Socialist Party half a century ago, if the Capitalist class were faced with the growth of a powerful movement for Socialism among the workers they would fall over themselves to offer reforms in an endeavour to stave off the end of their system.

As it is new evils crowd on us faster than the reformists can patch up. The unsolved and much increased problem of the slums and the millions of decaying houses (incidentally partly the result of that other reform, rent control), greets the new demand for reform of the housing subsidy reform; and after generations of trade union struggle for shorter hours and earlier retirement and against piecework, shift-work and night work the Labour Government while in office gave support to the opposite of each of these demands. One reform at present put forward by the Labour Party is the reduction of conscript service from two years to 18 months; while the Communists outbid them by supporting conscription for one year only. It was the Labour Government that made it 18 months in the first place and then increased it to two years; and both the Labour reformists and the Communist reformists in 1939 were against conscription altogether (except, of course, that the Communists never condemned conscription in Russia).

Again we have to point out that Capitalism leaves little choice in the way it has to be administered. It is not the good intentions of the Labour Party supporters that are at fault but their erroneous theory that they can remould Capitalist society to their hearts desire. Capitalism is a system; it can be replaced by another system, Socialism, when the majority want it, but it cannot be worked in a manner foreign to its nature. It is not growing into Socialism nor can it be made to. Those who waste time and energy trying to make it do so stand in the way of the movement for Socialism.


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