1980s >> 1984 >> no-959-july-1984

Letter: Blind faith in the broad church

Dear Comrades,

I am writing to you with regard to your opinions of the bankruptcy of the Labour Party as an organisation for radical change, and in particular of the articles “Crisis of the Left” (July) and “Labour in Pain” (August).

The choice before Labour is three-fold: Wilsonian pragmatism, with frontal attacks on working people, the welfare state and unions, all to retain power; revisionist radicalism, primarily attempting to reconcile Labour voters with socialism, not impose it on them; and fundamentalism, not diluting or changing our policies one bit. We have to be realistic in listening to voters’ hopes, radical in articulating an alternative system to capitalism’s horrors, and resolute in meaning what we say and making people realise that we will not be blown off by capital, as in 1931, 1948. 1967 and 1976. A little bit of socialism time and time again is better than nothing, and is surely worthwhile in helping radical politics.

May I remind you that in the 1983 general election. Labour on a left reformist programme got 8½ million votes, the SPGB 85 votes, a slight difference. If the dirigisme socialism of Labour, blunted and mellowed by internal contradictions and compromises, is too extreme for voters, they aren’t going to vote for a revolutionary Marxist party. Are they? Why not pause and think here; what makes you so sure that eventually the workers will turn to full-blooded socialism?

Ken Coates, in his excellent Socialists and the Labour Party (1973) asks many important questions to revolutionaries which have not been answered by you or theorists such as Miliband, Panitch and David Coates. In Coates’ pamphlet, he states the obvious truism that any revolutionary mass party must duplicate “the best features of the old Labour Party . . .” This is for the reason that such a party must draw heavily on former Labour activists, who are at the moment consciously influencing Labour in a socialist direction. The revolutionary left misses the fact that Labour is a living, changing organism, not a monolithic block, and is very susceptible to rank and file activism.

Coates also commented:

Since the collapse of the Independent Labour Party, there has been no group of socialists capable of maintaining a full-scale political presence outside the Labour Party . . . (by which) . . . I mean the ability to secure the election of at least a handful of members of Parliament. . .

So far the history of modern British socialism has involved any group existing outside or independently of Labour and, thus the trade union movement, withering away; no matter whether it was a new revolutionary group as with the Socialist League, SPGB, CPGB. IMG or SWP. or a breakaway from the party—the SDF, ILP. National Labour (the MacDonaldites). Democratic Labour (the Tavernites) and the Scottish Labour Party. Labour, despite the disaster of the last election and its recent record of government, is the only credible representative of the progressive working class. The lessons of the 1880s, 1930s and 1960s, periods of radicalism, must be that the only feasible road to socialism in this country is through the Labour Party.

In “Labour in Pain” (August), you hit on a number of important points about the internal contradictions of the party and hypocrisies of the “Broad Church”. Nationalisation of the top 25 companies as the IWC and Labour Conference want, or top 200 as Militant wants, is, as you say, irrelevant. Labour’s paranoid pursuit of public ownership has more to do with Gaitskell’s and Wilson’s opposition to it, than its merits. We have to realise that state control of industries does not alter the plight of workers. They remain wage slaves, no matter their income or material affluence, with no power over the factors of production which decide their lives. State control merely replaces the entrepreneur with the bureaucrat, the capitalist system for the servile state. Workers self-management, or to extend it beyond a narrow industrial front into all walks of life— citizens power, can alter the present undemocratic situation. Citizens power must be built on the ideas of guild socialism and the analysis of human nature and the stale provided by group theory. This must involve seeing the state as an obstacle to radical change, no matter how enlightened those in charge, and limiting its functions and roles. However, it has to be noted, sadly, that guild socialism has been neglected and forgotten about, seen as a throwback to the Medieval age with no pertinence to the industrial age.

The SPGB constitution says it stands for “the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth . . Does this glib phrase “common ownership” mean central planning and state control or “Stalinism plus parliamentary democracy or decentralisation and citizens power over capital? We have a right to know.

The SPGB does, on the other hand, say regularly, and in “Why we are hostile” (November), that all working-class people are “enslaved” and must be “emancipated”, not by enlightened Fabian elitists, but the workers themselves. This is fundamentally true. R. H. Tawney in The Acquisitive Society (1921) said:

The workers cannot have it both ways. They must choose whether to assume the responsibility for industrial discipline and become free, or to repudiate it and continue to be serfs.

Workers initiatives, take-overs and local plans, rather than centrally decided blueprints, is the only sure way of avoiding the servile state.

You say that only people who are fully in agreement with the SPGB can join. Your inability to lower the SPGB from its high, puritanical and principled pedestal of fundamental, sacrosanct ideas is sad. Socialist parties desperately need a coherent. dynamic ideological anchor to prevent policies appearing as just a “shopping list” with no underlying philosophy, and to resist the claims of capital. Principles are only of use in relation to short-term policies. You seem to miss this.

The SPGB is a valuable part of the British socialist movement. Labour, for all its faults, is socialist, though as you say in November, most Labourites “belong to a party which they imagine will one day exist . . .” However, if we keep trying, we socialists in and out of Labour can discard the stale heritage of labourism and state socialism. While Marx is still invaluable to analyse modern capitalism, particularly in the surplus theory of value and class critique of production, he cannot be dogmatically interpreted.

Dogmatism is not the answer for socialists. The SPGB should engage in an active, open and free debate with other socialists in the Labour, CPGB and other parties about the failure so far, future and road to British socialism, possibly in the Socialist Society. Any debate must be two-way, with no closed minds. We can learn from one another, sharing our experiences of capitalism and socialist action. You can give us some of your critiques and theories of capitalism, if we can give some, dare I suggest it, flexibility. Remember, together the left has enormous potential to win electoral support and change society. Divided, it has nothing. Despite our numerous differences, which are sincere and cannot be glossed over, we are on the same side—the mosaic of the socialist movement, facing a common enemy, not Thatcher or the Conservatives. but capitalism.

Gerry Hassan 
Dundee

Reply:

The Socialist Party is most willing to engage in “active, open and free debate” with those who call themselves socialists. Repeated efforts have been made to encourage the defenders of Left reformism to take the public platform and debate but, contrary to the impression given in the last paragraph of Mr. Hassan’s letter, it is the dogmatism of the traditional left which has prevented them from accepting open debate with the Socialist Party. For example, the leader of Lambeth Council, Ted Knight, was asked recently to debate with us in his own borough and replied that there would be no point in such as event as the Labour Party is bigger than the Socialist Party; our Islington branch has written two lengthy letters to The Militant Tendency, challenging them to debate, but they replied in writing that public disagreement “between socialists” would be embarrassing. So, we would advise our correspondent to write to the Leftist parties and groups urging them to make contact with the Socialist Party; they will meet no dogmatic resistance to discuss ideas from us.

We are reminded that the Labour Party won 8½ million votes in the 1983 general election on the basis of a “reformist programme”. What is a reformist programme, be it “left” or “right”, but a plan to make capitalism run more efficiently from the point of view of the majority of people in society? That 8½ million workers were conned into believing that a Labour government could do this indicates two things: firstly, there are still plenty of deluded workers around: secondly, there are less workers being taken in by the Labour Party now than has been the case in electoral terms for half a century. The validity of Labour’s ideas is not to be judged by the number of votes they received (on that basis, we would be forced to conclude that the Tories and the Alliance are, between them, substantially more “correct” than Labour), but the extent to which they can be realistically applied as a means of solving social problems. Eight and a half million people voted for Labour’s commitment to the NATO military gang, to the continuation of the wages system, to the acceptance that there must still be poor people for whom the state will have to care. They were voting for capitalism. Our correspondent points to the 85 votes received by the socialist candidate and draws the conclusion that if most voters found Labour’s programme “too extreme, they aren’t going to vote for a revolutionary Marxist party”. The reason workers did not vote Labour is that they have tried it before and it is no more than another way of voting Tory. Workers did not vote for socialism because they have yet to be convinced that it is in their interests: if there had been no Labour confusion-mongers in Islington South during the last election, making promises to workers which could not be kept, there would have been more votes for socialism. The “workers will turn to full-blooded socialism” when they have had enough of capitalism and are ready to opt for a different way of organising society.

The labour illusion is well summed up by Mr. Hassan when he writes that “A little bit of socialism, time and time again is better than nothing . . .”. Socialism — a system based upon common ownership, democratic control and production solely for use — is the direct opposite of the capitalist system. It is no more possible to have “a little bit of socialism” within a world based on minority class monopoly of the means of wealth production and distribution than it would be to be a little bit pregnant. What the Labour Party’s “little bit” amounts to is a programme to reform capitalism and, as our correspondent rightly points out, these efforts have repeatedly been “blown off by capital”. We are told that it is necessary to make people realise that capital will not interfere with Labour’s aims in future, but the Marxist critique of reformism is precisely that such hopes are illusory: if Labour is elected to run capitalism, as it sets out to be, it cannot but bow to the needs of profitability.

Calling in expert witness Coates damages rather than helps the case of our correspondent. What are “the best features of the old Labour Party”? Does he mean their support for two world wars or their racist immigration legislation or their strikebreaking record? Or does he mean their record of reformist promises, such as the promise of full employment made in Labour and the New Social Order or Bevan’s promise that there would be no housing problem in Britain after the Attlee government had served its term? If. by “the best features”, they mean Keir Hardie’s statement in the Manifesto of the English Socialists that socialism will entail the abolition of the wages system, then we in the Socialist Party are duplicating the best features, whereas Coates and the rest of the Labourites have ignored the socialist tradition.

After the evidence from the star witness. it is a shame that our correspondent once again returns to the old dogmatic chant that history must go on repeating itself. Evidence points the other way: Labour’s traditional support is crumbling (maybe temporarily, hopefully for good) and workers are looking at alternatives. If “the only feasible road to socialism in this country is through the Labour Party”, and if, after seven Labour governments, capitalism is still here, where is the evidence that the road is anything but a dead-end?

We are pleased to note that Mr. Hassan accepts the criticisms made by socialists of Labour and Militant’s nationalisation (state capitalist) policies. Indeed, we do “have to realise that state control of industries does not alter the plight of workers” — as the miners will testify. It is a pity that our correspondent’s clear recognition that state capitalism is not socialism is not applied to the equally non-socialist theory of “guild socialism”, as advocated by reformists like G D H Cole in the distant past. The fallacy of “workers’ control” is based on the failure to recognise that where there is a working class — where wage labour exists as a social relationship to capital — the only result can be exploitative. “Guild socialism” presented a naive plan to decentralise and democratise capitalist exploitation. If it has been “neglected and forgotten about”, as our correspondent states, working-class knowledge will be none the poorer.

We are asked whether our Object implies central planning, Stalinism, or decentralised power over capital. It means none of those things. It would be ludicrous to envisage world socialism as a society run by a bureaucracy on a central plan: clearly, common ownership will require a democracy organised by the majority. We do not advocate Stalinism, and socialism means more than parliamentary democracy: our Object commits us to working for democratic control, that is, the making of decisions about society by its citizens on the basis of full information, as for control over capital, we can only reiterate that there will be no wage labour-capital relationship in socialist society and therefore citizens will no more have power over capital than they will over the banks, the police force or the torture chambers: these social features will not exist.

We are not proposing, then, any “centrally decided blueprints”, but will leave it to the workers who establish socialism (who we hope will include us) to make the plans. We agree that most plans can be made locally but, under capitalism, “workers’ initiatives, take-overs and local plans” are constantly inhibited by the fetters of the profit system.

Mr. Hassan’s comments about principles invite the Socialist Party to fall into the political pit which the Labour Party is stuck in. We are told that only allowing workers to join who agree with us is “puritanical” and “sad”. We say that letting racists, nationalists, religious cranks. Leninists, pro-NATO supporters, careerists and “Wilsonian pragmatists” into the Broad Church is not just sad. but pathetic; not principled, but disgustingly opportunist.

We are told that “principles are only of use in relation to short-term policies”. We have a policy (which is neither short nor long-term, but as long as it takes us to achieve) which is to abolish capitalism and establish a world free of class division, exploitation, property relationships, poverty, war and wage slavery. Those aims are urgent and we are not going to be deterred in struggling resolutely for them by those who tell us to unite with the crumb-collectors of the Left.

How nice to be told that “The SPGB is a valuable part of the British socialist movement”. We have been waiting eighty years to meet the other part, but have no illusions that we will find it in the Labour Party or any of the other organisations which seek to re-arrange capitalism. Indeed. “Dogmatism is not the answer for socialists” and that is why those who still hold on to the pathetic belief that Neil Kinnock and his fellow reformists will eradicate the nasty bits of capitalism ought to abandon the Labour Party and join a party which defines socialism with clarity, fights for the new system with enthusiasm and remains uncompromisingly hostile to the apologists for capitalist politics.

Editors