1980s >> 1989 >> no-1022-october-1989

Opportunism Before Principle

It was only in 1918 that Labour officially adopted the word socialism to describe its aim. It is true that prior to that date Keir Hardie, the father of the Labour Party, had stated his aim to be that of working for a socialist society whose character we would not have argued against. But Hardie’s views was one amongst many in an organisation primarily concerned with representing trade union interests in parliament. He also mistakenly believed that socialism could be offered up to workers after winning mass support for reform programmes.

So why did this party representing a vast mix of reformers and single-issue campaigners adopt the word socialism in 1918? It was a pragmatic decision to present Labour as a serious contender for power. The Conservatives had Toryism, the Liberals Liberalism, and Labour needed a label, something to wear on their lapel with which to court the newly enfranchised workers—the label was Socialism. As Samuel Beer wrote in Modern British Politics:

    “Labour saw the real possibility of achieving parliamentary power with the help of the new working class votes. The adoption of socialism as an ideology was functional to this choice of political independence.”

Labour Seeks To Govern

The achievement of state power to govern over people has never had any place within socialist thought. The state could never exist within socialist society as, with its agents of coercion, the armed forces, the police and all other representatives of law enforcement, it only exists only to serve and protect the interests of the ruling class. The Socialist Party was formed to urge upon workers the need to understand their position of exploitation under capitalism and to organise to end class society, abolish the state and to replace “government over people” with “the administration of things”. This can never be achieved as long as workers continue to leave parliamentary power in the hands of leader.

Wring in 1905 in Socialism and Society Ramsay MacDonald, who at the time as the Secretary of the Labour Party was one of its top leaders, made it quite clear that Labour only ever intended to use workers to gain power and that he considered them incapable of autonomous thought:

    “It is practically impossible to maintain a pure and simple socialist party . . . in Great Britain. The mass of the people are prepared to accept the new doctrines not as absolute ideas, as the fully fledged socialists do, but as guiding principles in experimental legislation. That is what the rise of the Labour Party means, that is all it need ever mean.”

It should not be thought that MacDonald’s use of the term socialism bears any resemblance to what socialism really is. He took his cue from the Fabians who envisaged socialism as ownership by the state in a society run by “enlightened intellectuals”. These enlightened intellectuals were to be  . . . you’ve guessed it, themselves.

Share Ownership or Common Ownership?

Labour is now having doubts about whether socialism still is a useful label today to help win power. It is now seeking to win support by emphasising the virtues of the free market which is what its leaders perceive to be the popular bandwagon. At last year’s Labour Conference the Sunday Times (2 October 1988) quoted Bryan Gould, architect of Labour’s “new realism” as saying:

    “It would be stupid . . . to be frightened of labels by saying that anything which bears the name ‘shares’ is not socialist.”

Labour have never been frightened of labels, it is all they have ever dealt in. But Gould went on in his cynical abuse of socialist concepts to say that “workers owning shares in the company they work for is a form of common ownership”. In support of this idea Labour’s Deputy Leader, Hattersley, referred to “the full clause four of our constitution”.

Labour has never understood the true meaning of common ownership. Their Clause Four speaks of common ownership of the means of exchange, which is a contradiction in terms. It has been left to us to explain that common ownership is the ownership of all the means of production by society as a whole and that it must mean the disappearance of exchange as there cannot by any exchange of what is commonly owned.

So, with another Labour Conference on the horizon, can we unmask Labour’s real intent? All we need do is let them speak for themselves. There are the words of Kinnock, again speaking at last year’s conference, that “we will be faced with a market economy and we are going to have to make it work better than the Tories”. Socialists have never seen Labour as trying to do anything else, but this sort of talk shook the faith of some of those present. One exasperated delegate declared:

    “Given that we, ordinary working people, built the bakery in the first place and installed the machinery, we should own the bloody bakery.” (Daily Telegraph, 4 October 1988). 

If workers listen to the rhetoric of leaders, who time and again promise a fair and equal society—on condition that you give them power of course—and if workers let these leaders occupy the political arena with their smug assertion that all will be safe in their hands, then the result is inevitable. It is—as this delegate learnt—betrayal.

Tony Dobson

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