1980s >> 1983 >> no-951-november-1983

Why We Are Hostile

The rhetoric of an outdated system is always painful to the ears, and last month was a period of sustained aural pain, with each of the capitalist parties assembling to indulge in collective fantasies called policymaking. With outlooks ranging from self- deceit to knowing fraudulence. the rosette-wearers of the profit system gathered around their leaders in the hope that by following like sheep they wouldn’t be fleeced. The conference season is a period of mass idiocy, of suspension of disbelief, of applause for empty phrases, and faith based on illusion.

The capitalist parties had plenty to discuss. The Conservative Party is in power until 1988 after having won a landslide victory with 43 per cent of the electors voting for it. One wonders what a narrow victory would look like. The Labour Party was smashed at the polls, receiving its worst vote since 1918 and only just maintaining its right to call itself the opposition party. It must have been a bad defeat, for Tony Benn, who lost his seat, rejoiced in the Guardian that the election was a great victory for Labour. The SDP won about as many seats as they have policies and, instead of breaking moulds, Roy Jenkins resigned and Dr. Owen was left to look after the wounded. The Liberals did so badly that the Man of Steel went down with depression and took three months off with paid leave, Mediterranean beaches and yellow valium. Unfortunately, the mugs who follow Steel had to be content with going back to work on 10 June and hoping that they aren’t proportionately represented in the dole queues.

If appearances are to be believed, all the political parties are supposed to be different: different leaders, different programmes, different philosophies, different manifestoes, different styles. On the surface these distinguishing features are not to be doubted. But more significantly than all of these differing characteristics, these parties which appear to be locked in eternal conflict are fundamentally united in their total commitment to maintaining the capitalist system. They argue passionately about the best schemes for re-organising capitalism so as to make it problem-free, but none of them proposes any policy which is not based on the continuation of the system. Indeed, most of them have no comprehension of the system which they are endeavouring to administer; they are like blind men trying to rearrange the furniture in a slum: firstly, they cannot see the nature of the structure in which they are operating; secondly, they cannot see that the tools are available with which they can demolish the slum and build a palace. So, we do not blame individual members of the capitalist parties — or, more accurately, the different wings of The Capitalist Party — because most of them are quite ignorant of the foolish wastefulness of their political efforts.

Capitalism is a social system. It is not a “policy” which one can either encourage or discourage. It does not come to life only when the Tories are in power. It is not a moral description of an unhappy state of affairs, but an objective label for a set of social relationships which are historically transitory. Capitalism runs in accordance with its own social laws, the most important of which is that wealth takes the form of commodities for sale on the market with a view to profit. It is no accident that needs go unmet under capitalism when it is unprofitable to satisfy them: the problems resulting from market anarchy are endemic to the system. That is why reformism — the assumption that the symptoms of capitalism can be cured without removing the cause — is bound to fail, whatever political form it takes. That is why all the parties of capitalism, whether of its Left or Right wings, are destined to failure.

Most workers do not belong to any political party. Indeed, approximately 25 per cent of the electorate in the last general election were so indifferent to the parties of capitalism that they did not bother to vote. Those who vote often do so out of custom (“My father always voted Labour”) or for negative reasons (“I’ll vote for whoever will keep Thatcher out”) or for one policy (“I don’t agree with Liberal policy, but I’m in favour of reforming the electoral system”). Thousands of voters will admit that they can see no difference between the parties, but they vote for one or the other in pure hope. There are others who are attracted to parties which seem to be standing for something different: the SDP benefited from this factor as did, to a far lesser extent, the Ecology Party. The number of workers who are fully committed to the support of all, or even most, of the policies of any of the capitalist parties is remarkably small. For example, one has to search for some time to discover a Labour Party member who will defend the Labour Party as it is; most Labourites belong to a party which they imagine will one day exist, but which bears little relation to the current model. Acquiescence rather than support is what the workers give to the parties of capitalism.

The party conferences, while differing in style, are all concerned with one agenda: how to run capitalism. If you add up all of the people who attended all of the political conferences — and even if you added to that figure all of the people who participated in voting to instruct them on what to do at the conferences — you will arrive at a small fraction of the British population. The fact is that capitalist politics is an activity which only gains any kind of active participation by workers at election time, and even then only about three in four bother. So, although the control of the capitalists over the British state machine is firm and tight, we should not forget the weakness on which that grip is based.

It is well worth watching the political conferences on television. Of course, they are excruciatingly dull; they repeat the same, redundant debates; they cheer the same rousing slogans which will lead to the same bitter disillusion to which the political “solutions” of capitalism have always led. But, for all that, it is fascinating to watch the political dinosaurs at play.

There is not much to say about the SDP conference except that it was dull. The members looked like refugees from Martini adverts and the leaders looked like Blue Peter models, constructed out of old editorials from the Guardian. David Owen stated that the SDP must be committed to the market system and that was about all he needed to have said to qualify for membership of The Capitalist Party of Great Britain. He urged the SDP members to be altruistic (which they would have to be if they were following him) and not to be ashamed of being “middle class”. In fact, the majority of the SDPers are members of the working class, forced to sell their labour power for a wage or salary.

The Liberal Party Conference is always a jolly affair to observe. This year’s “big issue” was whether there should be a deputy leader and, apparently, Cyril Smith was upset because he was not called to the platform to proclaim his unself-interested views on the matter. The Liberals also decided to unite Ireland, ban Cruise missiles, negotiate for world peace and provide equal rights to all animals, without distinction of sex or fur colour. When they have done all that they will give serious consideration to the legalisation of cannabis — a large amount of which one would have to consume before imagining that the Liberals have a hope in hell of forming a government north of Devon. David Steel, in his Leader’s address to the Harrogate faithful, dug out a quotation from Oliver Cromwell about the need to know what you want and to be determined to get it. Oppressed furry animals and depressed woolly minds will be watching Protector Steel and Prince Charles will be keeping his distance from Harrogate.

The Labour Party met in Brighton and the chairman, in his opening address, made it clear that it was time for the Broad Church-goers to unite. They made clear their unity by expelling the editors of Militant — a move which united in opposition the vast majority of constituency Labour parties. It is well known by now that the L.abour conference is dominated, manipulated and turned into a parody of democracy by the block votes, representing millions of workers, at least half of whom do not vote Labour. What it is always hard to understand is how the majority of ordinary Labour Party members, including the CLP delegates who were repeatedly seen hissing and sighing every time the union juggernauts rolled over their policy proposals, can accept the indignity of membership of an organisation which they do not control. Being a Labourite is a sort of masochistic exercise in which one is repeatedly faced with destroyed hopes and pleasures deferred until next year. Of course, even if the Leftist proposals for capitalism were adopted — withdrawal from NATO, minimum wages, nationalisation “under workers’ control”, control of the police by well-meaning trendies — the system would still carry on, just as disastrous as ever for those consigned to wage slavery.

For the sake of the pretence of unity, the half-baked radicalism of the Left had to be abandoned and the Conference accepted a document called New Hope For Britain, which reads like it has been written by a computer programmed by Hugh Gaitskell and operated by a man who can’t quite make his mind up whether to join the SDP. As ever, the Labour Conference was an orgy of distortion of the concept of socialism. The term was used with such embarrassing misunderstanding of what it means that one can only conclude that socialism is to Labour what Heaven is to the Christian Church: a sort of catch-all term meaning “Something nice that will happen in the future, but not in our lifetime”. Labour’s socialism is a Utopia — a future dream — a slogan to make the indignities of the present seem easier to administer. As Bernard Shaw once said, the Labour Party has as much to do with socialism as a sewing machine has with frying eggs.

Neil Kinnock

The first task of the Labour faithful was to choose a leader. Needless to say, nobody questioned whether it was necessary to have a leader. None of the followers voted to stop following. In the end. the reformist fantasists fell, appropriately enough, for a “dream ticket”. The poverty of imagination of a party which regards Kinnock and Hattersley as a dream is reminiscent of the advertisement-mums who get kicks out of seeing their son’s underpants whiter than white. Of course, the Kinnock-Hattersley dream is a fantasy conspired by the pragmatists who seek to sell policies for capitalism like soap powder, with Boy Neil supplying the soft soap. Kinnock is without doubt an able rouser of emotions and an indignant opponent of the injustices of the system which he wants to keep intact. He peppers his reformist rhetoric with undefined references to “socialism”, but in his main speech to the conference he, like Owen of Salford, advocated no more than the tried and failed Keynesian plan for investment in British industry.

Two observations can be made about the outlook of the assembled Labourites. The first is their sickening self-righteousness. Dismissing any suggestion that social problems can be solved outside the confines of capitalism (not a single resolution debated in Brighton proposed abolition of the wages system, the market, money, classes and all the rest of capitalism’s hallmarks), the Labourites assume that by assuming a posture of moral indignation about the symptoms of the system they are somehow better than the Tory and Alliance reformists. A great deal of passionate language about peace is heard from these people, but when one comes to examine the policy which they overwhelmingly supported what does it add up to? Membership of the NATO mass killing organisation: support for increased expenditure on “civilised” weapons systems, such as the conventional niceties employed in the Falklands war; a policy of economic nationalism, including advocacy of import tariffs and Little Englander opposition to “becoming swallowed up by Europe”. The noises of Labourite peace and internationalism are so loud and convincing to the naive that it is easy to forget that, like the other capitalist parties, they have their policies for war and their nationalist prejudices. On racism, the Labour Party self-righteously claims to be the defender of the multi-racial outlook. Have they forgotten that it was Labour who first introduced racist immigration legislation into Britain? And, while we are exposing racism, did those who voted for Roy Hattersley as their Deputy Leader know that in the House of Commons on 23 March 1965 he stated:

  I now believe that there are social as well as economic arguments and I believe that unrestricted immigration can only produce additional problems, additional suffering and additional hardship unless some kind of limitation is imposed and continued

He went on to say that “We must impose a test which tries to analyse which immigrants . . . are most likely to be assimilated in our national life”.

Even on the old Tory favourite, Law and Order, Paul Boateng, the chairperson of the GLC Police Committee, told the conference that Labour must be seen as the party of law and order. Had he forgotten that it was the last Labour government which set up the notorious Special Patrol Group? So, despite the trendy pretensions to radicalism, the Labourites have no right to feel superior to their fellow supporters of capitalism in the other parties when it comes to the reality of politics.

The second feature of the Labour conference was its remarkable negativity. Its anti-Toryism was forceful, but no clues were given as to any serious alternative social strategy. The Labour Left’s sectarianism is having the effect of turning Labour into a party which is quite persuasive when booing at the caricatures of Toryism, and even quite good at hissing at the consequences of the party’s past actions, but, as for anything positive at which to cheer, there was silence. The Labour Party, when it is not emulating the Tories and running capitalism in the only way it can be run, is a party which is only cut out for opposition. Like Foot before him, Kinnock is a good windbag, possessing all the requisite skills for stirring up the crowd against the wicked Thatcherites, but the politics of negativity and permanent hostility will never achieve anything. So. Labour faces a dilemma: what it has is a forceful leadership which is well cut out to oppose the inevitable disasters of capitalist government — but, in seeking to become the next capitalist government, it requires Kinnock et al to abandon the rhetoric of indignation and to administer the very system which causes that indignation. In so doing, Kinnock and those who support him will have to justify as “realistic” and “unavoidable” the very policies which they are now condemning.

And so to Blackpool, where the world discovered that Cecil Parkinson does have a talent for something after all. The Tory conference is a grotesquely ugly affair; no, not the blue-rinsed dames and executive twits, but the uniformity, smugness and meanness of spirit. The sight of a mob of privileged self-seekers, united in the aim of holding back history by whatever means, is a sickening spectacle for a socialist to behold. As Michael White in the Guardian rightly pointed out. all the speeches seemed to be complaining that repressive legislation was not going far enough. In King Lear there are two sisters, both of whom are consumed by a perverted desire to strip their father of his power and take it for themselves; one sister, represented at Blackpool by the Ministers, was pragmatic about her greed and wanted to do the dirty bit by bit. but the other was always eager to go further, to push inhumanity to its limits — she was the delegate for Epsom East. The accomplished Ministers know how far they can push the policies of class defence without the workers getting dangerously upset; the relics of evolution in the audience would stop at little short of full restoration of feudalism.

Everything at the Tory conference is — like its counterparts in Eastern Europe — carried unanimously. In only one debate were the daughters of Lear in conflict: the balloted resolution on immigration — or, to be candid, on keeping out blacks. The clearly racist motion, moved by the Billericay branch — a place for which no rational West Indian would entertain dreams of heading — called on the government to encourage black people to accept voluntary repatriation. A few of the old ladies in the front row thought it was about voluntary euthanasia and looked a bit worried, but Harvey Proctor MP, whose culture seems to have been swamped at birth, made it clear that what Mr Hattersley can think of in 1965 the Monday Club can improve upon in 1983. At a Monday Club meeting, shown on Newsnight (10 October), Terry Dicks, the Tory MP for Hayes, said that Britain should not provide a home for the undesirables that other countries did not want. Perhaps he is in favour of them being made to take Brother Hattersley’s “test”. The anti-immigration motion was lost (on the grounds that the government could be relied on to be quite racist enough without the encouragement of Proctor and Dicks) and the rest was clapping.

It was, then, a busy month. Reporting the conferences before my television set, supplied with boiled sweets by the Socialist Standard’s editorial committee, the only conclusion to be drawn is that the Capitalist Party is as set in its dinosaur ways as ever it was. The conferences are like underground happenings, reported to the world above but having no real effect on the family with no home or the worker without a job or the teenager who is not sure whether she will be an adult before the bomb puts an end to us all. What can one say about the deliberations of the reformists of the Capitalist Party? They are irrelevant to our needs; they have no political answers; their agendas are constructed from the misery which they can never eradicate; their sincerity is wasted and their dishonesty is grotesque. If they never again uttered another word, issued another policy statement, appointed another leader, assembled at another conference, the world could only be better off. They are all “but the expression of class interests, and as the interest of the working class is diametrically opposed to the interests of all sections of the master class, the party seeking working-class emancipation must be hostile to every other party”. But we are not only hostile to them — the socialist objective for which we stand is far, far bigger than the miserable band of political relics which stands in our way.

Steve Coleman