1960s >> 1965 >> no-729-may-1965

“Where have all the socialists gone”

This was a question headlined by a Daily Mail writer. Mr. Walter Terry, on March 15th. He answered it himself: “They’ve joined the Government, one by one.” As Socialists haven’t gone anywhere, and certainly not into the Government. it had better be explained at once that the people Mr. Terry had in mind are the so-called “Left Wing” leaders of the Labour Party. He names Barbara Castle, Anthony Greenwood and Frank Cousins along with others who, invited by Harold Wilson to take government jobs have done so, and as public critics of government policy their voice is no longer heard. What could be more natural? Having got the government and the policies of their choice what else should they do? But Mr. Terry’s point is that the things the Government is doing and saying are not at .all to the liking of the rank and file admirers of these “left wing” leaders.


He had been reading the letters of protest and dissent in Tribune and the New Statesman and quotes as a typical example: “I, for one, feel utterly disheartened . . . Where have all the socialists gone? What was the election fight all for?”


Mr. Terry tells us how he sees the situation:


  Suddenly the Left Wingers feel cheated. Coddled and encouraged by the Prime Minister, they now have a chill feeling that they have been taken to the cleaners . . . Over Vietnam, defence and foreign affairs generally they discovered belatedly that instead of pursuing what they would call Socialist policy, the Government, in different words, treads a similar road to the Tories. Even on steel nationalisation, the virility symbol of Socialism, there is a nagging doubt (justified too) that, somehow, someone will try to dodge it.


It is plain to see that the Labour voters Mr. Terry wrote about are in a state of extreme confusion. The election was not fought by Tory, Liberal and. Labour parties about the issue whether capitalism should be replaced with Socialism, but about which group of politicians should have the job of looking after the domestic and foreign problems of British capitalism. They have not been “taken to the cleaners.” they took themselves. If they had given a little thought to the nature of capitalism and Socialism and to the political outlook of the electorate they would have known beforehand that government policies after the election had to be capitalist policies. The electorate did not and does not want Socialism and was not asked to consider it as a possibility.


And Mr. Terry is just as muddled as they are: steel nationalisation is not a “virility symbol of Socialism.” It has nothing to do with Socialism and even from a vote-catching point of view is about as virile as King Charles’ head.


The talk of nationalisation does however provoke a more important question, that of the sad outcome of the idea some Labour Party forerunners had when they first took it up. They—and this included Bernard Shaw, Sidney Webb and Keir Hardie—declared their aim to be “Communism “, meaning by the term what Marx meant and what the S.P.G.B. means,— a social revolution involving the abolition of class ownership of the means of production and distribution, the wages system etc. They did not imagine that nationalisation, which merely puts the government or a government appointed board, in place of the private capitalist or capitalist company, was Socialism. They, or at least some of them, did not even share the illusion that nationalisation has any advantage for the workers inside capitalism. What they did think was that the nationalisation of monopolies and large-scale industries would provide an easier structural framework for a Socialist working class to introduce Socialism.


They then faced the problem that the workers had not been won over to an understanding of Socialism—and their reaction was to run away from it. On the plea of wanting to do something immediately to solve the worst evils afflicting the workers, (including the abolition of war), they rejected the S.P.G.B. case for the paramount need to propagate Socialism and work for Socialism and went in for “practical” politics, by which they meant getting a Labour Government elected.


They had already in effect given up the struggle for Socialism Labour candidates seeking election could not hope to get votes from non-Socialist workers by telling them that nationalisation was of no practical benefit here and now but would be useful later on to get Socialism, so they more and more claimed that nationalisation was an end in itself, something leading to lower prices and better wages and that it would be good for all, including the rest of the capitalists (other than those whose industry was being taken over).


Time, and actual experience of nationalisation at work, have had a savage revenge on the defeatists who propagated the original theory that the way to get Socialism was to organise and fight for something else. The predominant leaders of the Labour Party know that an electoral campaign seeking a mandate to nationalise all industries would bring them certain defeat. Nationalisation is an irrelevance to capitalists and workers alike; it has little bearing on the actual problems facing British capitalism and none at all on the position of the workers. If all that Mr. Terry’s wrongly called “Socialists” have lost is the chance of having some more state capitalism they haven’t lost anything worth having. Why not forget it and start thinking about Socialism?


Edgar Hardcastle