Labour’s Plan for Capitalism

Millions of workers will vote Labour in the next election; for many of them it is a habit. But like watching the Boat Race or going to church, the tradition of blind allegiance to the Labour Party is on the decline. Some Labourites are turning to that gang of political tricksters, the SDP, with their instant policies to suit all prejudices and their moderate vision of a capitalist system in which the exploiting and exploited live in perfect consensual harmony. The politicians who dominate the Labour Party are worried by the mass exodus of members, supporters and voters from their ranks. Having in the past gained working class allegiance by the most sickening opportunism, the Labour Party is now viewed as no more capable than any others of eradicating the inherent ills of capitalism.

There are still those who believe that Labour is, or could be, a socialist party. Indeed, Labour’s enthusiastic activists are workers, often young and energetic, who are fired by the illusion that a Labour government will one day do something about establishing socialism. In many respects, the hatred of the iniquities of the present social order and the sincere pursuit of “something different” is to be admired; it is also proof of the socialist contention that capitalism is doing the job of creating class conscious workers for us. But the militancy of Labour’s Leftist activists is misdirected; their conception of socialism is vague at best and, when clarified, amounts to little more than a programme of widespread nationalisation — state capitalism — which can provide no solution to the problems of the working class. It is for this reason that the Militant Tendency, despite all the rebellious rhetoric and the zeal for nationalisation, is no real threat to capitalism as a system. Support for the Labour Party in the misguided belief that this is support for socialism leads inevitably to disillusion; the ranks of political apathetics are filled by more than a few workers who wasted their energies “fighting for socialism” in the party of Attlee, Wilson, Callaghan and Foot.

According to deluded Labourites, the transformation of the Labour Party into a genuine socialist party is always just about to happen. In 1963, when Left-wing Harold Wilson was elected as Gaitskell’s successor, the Communist Party’s Central Committee was so overjoyed that it passed a resolution stating its confidence in the new leader’s socialist credentials. In 1982 we debated in Croydon against a representative of the Militant Tendency who stated emphatically that his faction was destined to grow within the Labour Party; at the Labour conference that year a resolution to expel Militant “supporters” was carried. Just as Christian workers tolerate their drab existences and repressed moral codes only by believing in a heavenly paradise, so the Labour Left can only put up with the tedium of futile Labour reformism as long as they have an illusory hope that one day, maybe soon, a Labour government will do what none has done before: make society run in the interest of the wealth producers — ban the bomb, end inequality and abolish poverty. The fundamental question which any reasonable political activist must ask, but which the Labour Left refuse to pose, is: How would a Labour government set about changing society?

we have seen what has happened in the past. Labour governments have carried out every anti-working-class action which the Tories have gone in for: they have supported wars; initiated the British atom bomb; sent in troops to smash strikes; established the vicious Special Patrol Group and set them on the picket lines at Grunwick; passed racist immigration laws; imposed “monetarist” expenditure cuts leading to the closure of hospitals and other vitally needed services. They have left power and, above all, the ownership and control of the means of wealth production and distribution in the hands of a parasitic capitalist minority. The record of Labour governments is one of total subservience to the needs of capital — of the rich and powerful and privileged — against the material interests of the class which produces, but does not possess.

Understandably, modern Labour supporters like to forget; a qualification for allegiance to the Labour Party is a short memory. But under Michael Foot, we are told, all will be different. Foot — who insisted in the House of Commons Emergency debate on the Falklands that the government should send its armed killers to the South Atlantic — has a reputation as a man of peace, a true radical. Indeed, if his past writings are anything to go by, Foot is a more literate, articulate and “radically” inclined politician than his four predecessors. But what does such radicalism amount to? The Labour Left sees in it reason to anticipate “socialist” policies from a Foot-led government. Apart from the fact that socialism cannot be enacted by a government, and that Labour’s Clause Four definition of socialism is a recipe for state capitalism, there is evidence that Michael Foot has no intention of doing anything — if he ever obtains power — which has not been tried and failed before.

Foot’s recipe book for changing society is the dated, tried, tested and failed theories of John Maynard Keynes. It was Keynes’s intention to demonstrate the invalidity of Marx’s analysis of capitalism as a system which can never run in the interests of the working class. He set out to show that capitalism can be made to work without economic crises, high unemployment and wars and in the 1930s was regarded by many as the new messiah. Since then Conservative, Liberal and Labour parties, in and out of government, have adopted versions of Keynesianism as the solution to capitalism’s problems. By the mid-1970s the Keynesian “answer” was wearing rather thin. The last Labour government began to abandon Keynesian theory for recent American monetarist theories and Thatcher’s Tory government has adopted monetarism as fanatically as earlier politicians had taken the Keynesian cure. Neither theory is in any way able to change capitalism from the anti-working class system it necessarily is.

The prospect of Foot and Thatcher fighting over the claim to be the true followers of Keynes is a comic reflection of the similarity of the two apparently opposed parties of British capitalism. It was in the Sunday Times of 27 February 1983 that Margaret Thatcher stated: “I would say that I really am the true Keynesian, when I’m taken as a whole”. This profoundly upset Michael Foot, who in the same newspaper on 6 March 1983 wrote that “To claim that what she’s doing is in any way blessed by Keynes, or Keynesianism, is an insult to the memory of Keynes”. Having denied the Tories the blessing of Keynes (a blessing of little value to the Keynesian Wilson, Heath and Callaghan governments), Foot goes on to point out that a future Labour government will repeat the failed Keynesian policies of the past:

First of all we’ll get into operation a new budget, which will start on the road to expansion and stop all this nonsense that is going on. A full-blown Keynesian budget, with expansionary protections built in.

Foot’s Keynesian offer is a request to the working class to accept a repeat performance of an unworkable, discredited economic theory. In the run-up to the general election the Labour Party will drag out all sorts of previously failed policies and put them before the electorate as brand new solutions. Michael Meacher has already given his Leftist support to the idea of a pre-election deal between the Labour Party and the TUC, promising voluntary wage restraint under a Labour government. Tony Benn has called for all factions to rally behind Foot and Healey—because defeating the Tories is more important than anything else. A watered-down policy on defence has been published which is designed to deceive the unilateralists, while satisfying Labour’s multilateralist Foreign Affairs spokesman and the majority of Labour voters, who nationalistically support NATO and the need for nuclear weapons. The old game of opportunism for the sake of electoral success is once again being played within Labour’s ranks. For how much longer will members of the Labour Party be prepared to mouth the rhetoric of radical change while accepting the expediency of policies which leave the capitalist system firmly intact?

The Labour party must be defeated. The energy and commitment of Labour activists must not be wasted on the struggle to elect yet another poor person’s Tory government. The alternative is not apathy — or the SDP, which amounts to the same thing. The Socialist Party is serious about changing society. Unlike the Labour Party, we understand what capitalism is and how it works. Unlike the Militant Tendency, we have a conception of socialism which is fundamentally different from any form of capitalism. To elect another reforming Labour government promising to make a better society for the workers while jumping to every demand of the profit system would be a tragedy for those who desire a peaceful, united, free society. The only alternative to the capitalist system is a world where  everything is owned in common and controlled democratically — where there is free access to all wealth — where the sole aim of production is to satisfy human needs. There can be no socialism without conscious socialists; it is time to give up hope in the sterile fantasies of Michael Foot and his fellow Keynesian reformists — it is time to take socialism seriously.

Steve Coleman

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