Against the Left pt.1

    The SOCIALIST PARTY OF GREAT BRITAIN has consistently maintained that the ‘left-wing’, despite their claims to being socialist are, in reality, reformist rather than revolutionary organisations, with no more than a sentimental attachment to the working class. In the first of a series of articles providing a searching analysis of the left, we begin with the historical origins of leftism. Future articles in the series will deal with — Bolshevism, Stalinism and the Communist Party; Trotskyism; Sectarianism and Principles, concluding with a look at the Road Ahead.


    “Our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie, possesses . . . this distinctive feature; it has simplified the class antagonism. Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other: the Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat.” (Marx, The Communist Manifesto, 1848)

THROUGHOUT RECORDED HISTORY there have been oppressors and oppressed, exploiters and exploited, rulers and ruled. Marx and Engels were not the first to recognise this historic antagonism of interests, nor were they the first to seek a future society based on egalitarianism. Philosophers have sought The Good Society’ for as long as there has been human misery. In the middle of the nineteenth century, however, conditions developed which gave rise to the conviction that society based on class division and exploitation could be ended.

The rise of industrial capitalism broke down the complex class relationships of feudalism and created two classes: the capitalists, who own the means of wealth production and distribution and live in comfort by accumulating rent, interest and profit, and the working class who produce the wealth of society in return for wages and salaries that roughly equal the cost of survival. In the course of production workers are exploited by producing a surplus over and above the value of the wages and salaries paid to them. This exploitative system, by using new technological inventions and by forcing workers to expend as much labour as possible for the price paid, created the potential for an abundance of wealth. Such material abundance is a prerequisite for a society based on the satisfaction of human needs. The fruits of this technological progress did not benefit the producers of wealth because, under capitalism, production takes place with a view to profit and not for use.

It was Marx and Engels who, by examining the economic laws of capitalism, were able to see a practical alternative to class society. Their concept of socialism (which was by no means a well developed formulation) was based on the working class winning control of the State machine and abolishing the class ownership of wealth. The new society would be based on ‘an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all’. Marxism was essentially different in two important ways from other political philosophies. Firstly, its theory (for Socialism) was inseparable from its practice (political struggle). One can no more be an ‘inactive’ Marxist than an armchair footballer. Secondly, Marxism has no claim to be ‘in the interest of all’ — it is the political expression of the interest of the vast majority: the working class.

What was the reaction of the nineteenth century working class to their new-found means of emancipation? The history of the British labour movement in these years was twofold. On the one side was the emergence of the industrial trade union movement for the defence of wages and conditions of employment which has culminated in the well organised trade union movement of today. On the other side was the political movement of the working class from which emerged the Labour party.

In 1824 and 1825 the Combination Acts, which were passed to prevent the organisation of trades unions at the time of the French Revolution, were repealed. By the second quarter of the nineteenth century some workers were beginning to realise that the employed had a common interest to protect and that the defeat of one group of workers could best be averted by the formation of a union of all workers. In 1830, after the defeat of the cotton spinners’ strike, John Doherty, an Irish Catholic, founded a General Union, the National Association for the Protection of Labour which claimed a membership of 100,000 by 1831. The NAPL advocated co-operative production (it was a forerunner of modern ideas of Workers’ control), but attempts to organise co-operatives by constituent unions, such as the Operative Builders’ Union failed when faced with a series of lock-outs. The NAPL collapsed because of divisions which existed between workers, cunningly fostered by employers.

The next attempt to form a General Union was led by the Utopian Socialist, Robert Owen. In 1834 he formed the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union. Its significance has been overstated by labour historians; it claimed a membership of 500,000, but was certainly less than half that. One reason for its collapse was the series of lock-outs of its members in Derby, Leicester and Glasgow. Another was the intensification of State action against the unions, such as the famous case of the Tolpuddle martyrs in 1834. The new Whig government, having supported parliamentary reform in 1832, was anxious to demonstrate its loyalty to the ruling class. Its suppression of workers’ combination was a most convincing display of class loyalty. The workers, on the contrary, were lacking in confidence and education. Because of the former they were dependent on middle class leadership and because of the latter they were easily misled, as seen in 1832 when they rioted in the streets to give their employers the vote and in the failure of Chartism in the 1840s. The abortive attempts by workers to form a General Union in the 1830s signified the beginning of working-class consciousness. Nevertheless, it should not be forgotten that in the 1830s there were still more cobblers than cotton spinners in Britain and the concentration of workers into vast, impersonal places of employment was yet to be fully experienced.

At this stage in the history of the working-class movement political ideas became most significant. So far the story has essentially been one of workers struggling to improve the price of their labour-power and conditions. Once this struggle came into conflict with the State, as representative of the employing class, a political question presented itself: How far can the working class improve its position within the capitalist system? Looking at it from a bourgeois point of view capitalism had everything going for it. With progressive reform and scientific development it seemed that the luxury of the ruling class and the condition of the working class could improve infinitely. According to Marxism the system contained irreconcilable class antagonisms which were bound to produce increasing misery for the workers. The Left found itself divided between these two analyses. On the one hand they claimed to accept the Marxist critique of capitalism, but on the other they were tempted by the optimism and immediacy of reformism with its promise of making capitalism run in the interest of the workers. Increasingly, trade union leaders were won to the idea that the unions should co-operate with the State. They were soon to be attracted to parliamentary careers in the Liberal party which cynically exploited the working class vote.

There were two organisations at the end of the last century claiming to stand for Socialism: the Social Democratic Federation and the Fabian Society. Both organisations comprised philanthropic leaders who saw the working class as incapable of changing society for themselves. This was in opposition to Marx’s ‘Provisional Rules’ of the First International which stated

    “That the emancipation of the working class must be conquered by the working class themselves.”

Neither the SDF or the Fabian Society stood for Socialism, but for the reform of capitalism. Socialism was accepted as the ideal, but the sincerity of idealism was no substitute for revolutionary principles.

The SDF was set up in 1881 by a group of disillusioned Liberals, led by H. M. Hyndman. Amongst its main leaders were H. H. Champion, Eleanor Marx, Belfort Bax, Tom Mann and John Burns, both leaders of skilled unions, and William Morris, the craftsman, poet and chief financial contributor to the SDF. Within the SDF there were certainly a number of sound Marxists, but, as an organisation, its effect was negligible and its reform programme was in contradiction to its claim to be Socialist.

The Fabian Society was based far more upon popular Christian morality than on any principles of a serious nature. Its motto described its gradualist approach to social change:

    “For the right moment you must wait, as Fabius did most patiently, when warring against Hannibal, though many censured his delays; but when the time comes you must strike hard, as Fabius did, or your waiting will be in vain, and fruitless.”

The SDF and the Fabians failed to win mass working-class support. At the same time the trade unions were becoming increasingly effective, for example in the success of the dockers’ strike in 1889. Objectively, the prospects for Socialism seemed quite good. Engels, in a moment of excessive enthusiasm wrote that

    “The masses are on the move and there is no holding them any more. The longer the stream is dammed up the more powerfully will it break through when the moment comes.” (Marx and Engels on Britain p. 523)

Indeed, those who see history as a series of progressions would find it strange that by the dawn of the Twentieth century the stream of working-class consciousness was as dammed up as ever and the moment which Engels predicted showed no signs of coming. History is not simply the record of events occurring when the moment is ripe, but is as much the story of the effect of ideas and movements on material circumstances as that of the environment on men and women.

The first factor in the ascendancy of leftism was the decline of the First International. Marx had worked since 1867 to bring the International Working Men’s Association, the international association of trades unions and progressive political organisations, to adopt Socialist principles. At first he had to defeat the followers of Proudhon. From the 1870s until the collapse of the International the anarchist doctrines of Bakunin prevailed and Marxism was rejected. Despite the existence of the International, few British trade unionists were won over to orthodox Marxism. They were more concerned to limit their efforts to the industrial struggle which could never fundamentally alter the cause of their oppression.

More important in the rejection of Marxism was the rise of the Labour Party. The few independent representatives of labour elected to the House of Commons after 1867 were soon seen to be, in the words of Joseph Chamberlain, ‘mere fetchers and carriers for the Gladstonian party’. This disillusion led the trades unions to consider forming their own political party to defend their interests. On 13th January 1893, at the Bradford Labour Institute, one hundred and twenty delegates from various branches of the SDF, the Fabian Society, Keir Hardie’s Scottish Labour Party and a few trades unions, assembled to consider establishing an independent labour party. The object of its formation was not to unite socialists, but to defend the unions. After the defeat of the engineers’ strike in 1898 the TUC received a resolution from the Railway Servants’ Union asking it to devise ways and means for securing the return of an increased number of labour members to the next parliament.

Following the acceptance of this resolution by the 1899 Trade Union Congress a conference took place, on 27th February 1900, at the Memorial Hall in Farringdon Street, which appointed the Labour Representation Committee consisting of two members of the SDF, one member of the Fabian Society, and seven trades unionists. In the election of 1900 the new Independent Labour Party put forward ten candidates of whom two (Keir Hardie and Richard Bell) were elected. In the 1906 election, following the Taff Vale case in which strikers were legally discriminated against, the number of ILP members elected was trebled.

So, by the beginning of the present century trade union representatives were sitting in parliament. Surely, one might think, it was better to elect to parliament people who were at least sentimentally attached to the working class rather than avowed capitalists.

The record of the last seventy years, after six Labour Governments, has proved otherwise. The SPGB argued from its formation (in 1904) that only Socialism can provide a solution to the problems of the working class. Trade union efforts can only provide limited success and reforms can only eliminate aspects of the system and not the system itself. The rise of the Labour party as a political expression of trade unionism has caused inestimable damage to the revolutionary movement for Socialism.

Steve Coleman

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