The Sterility of Labourism

To look for any underlying theoretical unity in the Labour Party is like looking for the proverbial black cat in a dark room—that isn’t there. From scratch the organisation was opportunistic and eclectic. “we are committed to no one creed or dogma” was one of its earliest dogmas, while its adamant refusal to commit itself to any definite principle was the nearest approximation to a principle.

It was John Ward who said at a Labour conference prior to the Labour Party being formed “they wanted to get their feet planted in the House of Commons and should not be a bit particular the way they did it.” While Keir Hardie and others present ostensibly protested at this, nevertheless the election pacts and arrangements between the Labour Party and Liberals, on whose support they relied, showed it was Ward’s view which prevailed.

Because the political accommodation of the Labour Movement was broad it was able to house diverse and divergent ideas. Little wonder it spoke with many tongues. There were those preaching violent revolution. Others were the most gentle of evolutionaries regarding even the concept of class struggle as “bestial Darwinism” smuggled into “Socialist politics.” Many were internationalists whose slogan was, “Workers of the World, Unite.” Some were “Little Englanders” advocating “Britain for the British.” There were militant atheists denouncing religion as the real enemy of Socialism, and devout Christians seeing “The New Testament” as the revealed and authorised Socialist catechism and Jesus the Socialist prototype.

Then there were the Fabians who subscribed, one might almost say, oversubscribed, to Harcourt’s dictum, “We are all Socialists now.” It was the Fabians who made State activity and Socialism, synonymous terms. In the howling desert of capitalism they discovered “Socialist” oases in the form of parks, playing fields, cemeteries, municipal baths, washhouses, and public conveniences, etc. Even the War Office and Scotland Yard had the character of Socialist institutions. Just as Liberal and Tory Governments might regard themselves as anti-Socialist but in so far as they carried on extensive and ever extending State activities were willy nilly instruments for Socialism. The Fabian policy of permeation or “boring from within, ” of various political parties was the political tactic to influence, “building up Socialism in one country.”

Because the Fabians believed in “the silent revolution going on every day in our midst,” some regarded the arrival of the Socialist party, i.e., the Labour Party, a little doubtfully. They thought that if this new party shouted Socialism at the top of its voice its revolutionary overtones might not only penetrate the ears of Liberals and Tories but into the fashionable drawing rooms of distinguished members of the Fabian Society with disturbing effects. To some Fabians it seemed that the thing most likely to retard Socialism, was Socialists. It was this “creeping Socialism” which, from the early battle of ideas, finally emerged victorious. It became the “official Socialism” of the Labour Party.

This Socialism is not a definite conception capable of actual realisation but an ideal to which there is only an imperceptible approximation. On the road to “Socialism” we shall meet many milestones which will tell us how far we have come. We shall not, however, meet any milestone which informs us how far we have to go before the Socialist goal is reached. Like the pilgrims on The Golden Road to Samarkand ” . . . we shall go always a little further.”

Nevertheless many pioneers of the Labour movement did not view Socialism as a merely recurring decimal of State activity. Many might have mistakenly believed that Nationalisation and various forms of State activity might serve as a means to an end but they did not believe that these things were an end in itself. Thus, Keir Hardie in accepting as he said “State Socialism,” despite all its drawbacks, as an evolutionary stage in social development nevertheless held that it was “a preparation for free Communism in which the rule of life would be, from each according to his capacity to each according to his needs.” (From Serfdom to Socialism, p. 89).

In fact a cursory glance at Labour literature prior to 1914 reveals sharp differences in outlook between present day Labourites and those of the past. At least many of the earlier ones had a sounder grasp of the essentials of capitalism and saw the alternative to present society as a social whole and not like the present ones as a thing of shreds and patches. One feels that many of the old stalwarts would have been astonished to learn that the Socialist objective is a mixed economy with its “Socialist” sectors and “private enterprise” sectors. Or that the theoretical basis of the new society is that piece of plagiarised Rousseauism, ” The Managerial Revolution,” preened of its sinister implications in order to fit in to current political requirements.

We may even note the exuberant vitality of the Fabian Fathers as compared with the indecisive and faded outlook of the Fabians unto the second and third generation. In the first Fabian Essays, perhaps the most radical of Fabian writing, the authors not only had very definite ideas about capitalism but a sublime faith in the way they were going to alter it. In the New Fabian Essays (1952) its authors are not only uncertain as to what capitalism actually is but even more uncertain what it is going to turn out to be. According to one of its authors, Mr. R. H. S. Crossman, the Labour Party has lost its way and it seems is not certain of finding it again. Thus the “official and authorised Fabian guide to British capitalism” turns out to be an uncharted voyage of discovery. Having no real knowledge of social navigation the New Fabians are fortified with the belief that this strange and experimental journey will if they go on and on finally get them somewhere—it will, but where?

It is not suggested that some basic change has taken place in the Labour Movement’s outlook. In fact old views with new views have been so curiously mixed that it is impossible to separate one from t’other. The significant differences are to be found in the change of mood and sentiment. In the past many in the Labour Movement had at least a vision of an international organised working class transcending national barriers. They believed this was  bound up with the growth of the movement. The advent of a Labour Party to power has had a totally opposite effect. The Labour Governments were inevitably enmeshed in power politics with its concomitant power group notions and its ideological division of good countries and bad countries. In such circumstances it not only had to nullify the old international views but use its political and industrial influence among workers to actively suppress it. In far off days the Labour Party claimed that its accession to political strength would raise the standard of internationalism to a higher level. Today it lies in the political gutter.

In the past there existed in the Labour Movement a genuine militant sentiment. For many Pacifism was an article of “Labour” faith. By a supreme irony it was “Labour” as the governmental power who not only initiated peace time conscription but the greatest of all peace time rearmament drives. One can be a Pacifist Labour M.P. today advocating total disarmament but it is almost as anachronistic as an atheistic Republican on the Conservative front bench.

Undoubtedly the dynamic of the early Labour Movement was its political faith and vitality. A faith and vitality which succeeded in weaning the political allegiance of millions of workers from the old and powerful political parties of capitalism. Its weakness was rooted in its dualistic attitude. On the one hand it strove to be different from the older parties by its emphasis on social aims whose goal was the suppression of the existing order. On the other it might, and did, become a mass party dedicated to social reforms and was thus irrevocably committed to the assumption that capitalism was capable of indefinite and progressive improvement. From this it followed that their criticism of society took on an ethical rather than economic evaluation. If capitalism was capable of indefinite improvement then the failure of the old parties to have made any worthwhile progress lie in the fact it was administered “by hard faced politicians.”—bad men—whereas it would be administered by good men—the Labour Party. Although if the pioneers were able to view present day capitalism they might, in spite of two Labour Governments, still think it was being run by bad men.

In short the Labour Movement failed to see the real nature of the social problem. They failed to see that British capitalism was an interlocked world system with no independent momentum of its own, or that the only way for a profit making system to act consistently is to make profit. In short they saw capitalism from the parochialism of a closed economy without seriously taking into account the internal distortions set up by external stresses and strains. Thus by abstracting from capitalism the concrete features which make it capitalism they proposed to administrate a capitalism which wasn’t capitalism.

Moreover the Labour Party in seeking mass support had to attract people who did not want capitalism changed but merely changes in capitalism. From that moment their ideals were not merely hampered but hamstrung. The need for popular support came into conflict with their avowed aims. The Labour Party by thus accepting this society was forced to work for it, not against it. So it repeats the age long story of social reformism the bartering of its beliefs and ideals for votes. It begins by declaring it will not play the game of capitalist politics. It ends by coming to power and accepting all the rules of the game and its youthful dreams become “the insubstantial pageant faded.” If in this crazy world, haunted by uncertainty and fear and a neurotic  impulse to self destruction, the Labour Party still has its dreams, then they are of the order of nightmares.

E. W.

Leave a Reply