1990s >> 1992 >> no-1055-july-1992

Smith or Gould—who cares?

No doubt it will be John Smith—the John Major clone—who will emerge this month as the new Leader of the Labour Party. Whether his rival Bryan Gould will get the deputy leadership as a consolation prize is by no means certain, but Gould has at least shown himself capable of discussing political ideas in a way that is rare in the top echelons of the Labour Party these days.

In a book published in 1985 entitled Socialism and Freedom he discussed what would have to be the features of a socialist society. The specific institutions of such a society, he argued, were not ends in themselves; they were means to achieve a situation where every individual human being would have the maximum freedom to shape their life. This, he went on, could only be achieved by spreading decision-making power as widely as possible. The “overriding aim” of socialists, therefore, must be:

    to maximise the power (and therefore the freedom) exercised by each and every citizen. This can be done only by diffusing power as widely as possible—in other words, by sharing it equally.

On this definition, a socialist society was a “society in which power is equally shared by all”.

At this level of abstraction, we can agree with Gould. We don’t want common ownership and democratic control for their own sakes but because we think that these provide the only basis on which all humans can live the best life that is now possible. We can also agree that the way to ensure this is by diffusing decision-making power equally amongst all the members of society. However we wouldn’t leave the argument there as Gould does.

This equal decision-making power must apply, in fact must especially apply, to the control and use of the means for providing for the material needs of the members of society. Every member of society must be in a position to have an equal say in deciding how the means of wealth-production—the productive resources, natural and human-made, at the disposal of society—are to be used.

What we are talking about here is a classless society in which the means of production belong to no-one in the sense that there is no group within society that has an exclusive, or even a more than equal, say in the way they are used. This is the same as saying that they belong to everyone—that they are “commonly owned”.

Needless to say, Gould doesn’t go this far. In fact he doesn’t regard common ownership in this sense as being a necessary feature of a socialist society. Which must mean either that he is a sloppy thinker or that he doesn’t think that it is possible to diffuse power that widely.

Gould is, however, fully aware that we are living in a society in which decision-making power is far, very far, from being equally distributed. After giving some examples of progress made this century away from inequality (the main one being the achievement of equal voting rights in political matters for all men and women), Gould gives the following accurate picture of the situation today:

The owners of capital—whether private or public, individual or corporate—still own, control and enjoy the fruits of the wealth-producing process and buy and sell working lives as though they were commodities. Economic power is still concentrated in their hands, with the necessary correlative that it is removed from the hands of the bulk of ordinary people for whom the wage relation bargain remains unequal and demeaning.
The law still underpins the whole concept of succession and inheritance, so that private property—essentially an artificial, social concept which needs the backing of the law to protect it—can be accumulated to an extent well beyond that needed to satisfy even the most outrageous appetites for personal consumption.
The welfare state, though valuable and important in itself, remains a palliative for dealing with the casualties of a system which necessarily produces major and self-reinforcing inequalities and injustices. The search for private profit remains the major motivation for economic activity.

Faced with this capitalist reality Gould rejects a policy of “total abolition and replacement” of capitalism in favour of one of “control and reform”. This of course is the gradualist and reformist policy that the Labour Party has always pursued. At the turn of the century a genuine argument could go on between what appeared to be two alternative ways to socialism, but the experience of the last 90 or so years has settled the issue. The policy of the “control and reform” of capitalism is not a road to socialism at all. There have been five periods of Labour government, during which Labour was in office for a total of 20 years, yet the situation today is as described by Gould above.

In fact the failure has been even greater as instead of the Labour Party gradually changing capitalism it has been the other way round: capitalism has gradually changed the Labour Party. At one time Labour theoreticians like Gould would have argued that the long-term aim was to actually establish a socialist society in which power, including the power to control the use of the means of production, would be equally shared. Now, however, Gould is reduced to arguing that a socialist society is an impossibility and that the most “socialists” can achieve is some precarious progress towards less inequality:

Socialism is not a destination at which we shall arrive one day. There are no final victories in politics. Socialism is a constant struggle against the forces in society which naturally tend towards the concentration of power.

To a politician whose party has tried and failed to reverse the capitalist tendency towards increasing inequality, it must indeed seem that this tendency is “natural”, and given the maintenance of the basis of capitalism—class ownership and production for profit—it does act as if it were a natural law in that there is nothing that can be done to stop it operating.

In using the word “natural” in this context Gould is admitting that all the Labour Party is now trying to do is not to make progress towards a socialist society, however confusingly defined, but merely to slow down and delay capitalism’s tendency to increased inequality. “Socialism” has become not a new form of society but merely the empty dream of a less unequal capitalist society.

But even this watered down version of Labour’s original programme is too radical for the likes of Smith for whom a penny on or a penny off the standard rate of income tax is all that politics is about.

Adam Buick