1990s >> 1998 >> no-1125-may-1998

Book Reviews: ‘The British General Election of 1997’, ‘The Future Socialist Society’, & ‘Historical Dictionary of Socialism’

Happy Birthday?

The British General Election of 1997 by David Butler and Dennis Kavanagh (MacMillan, 1997) and Labour’s Landslide edited by Andrew Geddes and Jonathan Tonge (Manchester University Press, 1997).

One year on from 1 May last year, the hullabaloo has subsided and something more like boo-hoo has started. These two books, however, chronicle New Labour’s climax, not the messy post-coital depression we have been living with since. They are useful in that the demonstrate the fickleness of the British working class’s love affair with the Labour Party, and amply demonstrate its underlying worries about Labour’s suitability for the marital home.

Both expand on their findings that the main reason the working class decided to embark on an affair with Labour was the regular beatings it had been taking from its previous paramour. Labour was wanted primarily for what it wasn’t, not what it was. Most significantly, less than 31 percent of the electorate voted Labour into power last May, despite its “landslide” victory, this being largely because of the extremely low turnout. This, historically, is a low winning share of the vote and actually lower than that managed by the Conservatives under John Major in 1992.

Butler and Kavanagh’s study—Butler has been producing such analyses of General Elections for decades—is typically rigorous and thorough, well researched and with few mistakes. Possibly its most interesting chapter is the one on the press and how Labour managed to win over the affections of Wapping and Fleet Street (which helped Nicholas Budgen in Wolverhampton) and the relative lack of hostility to ethnic minority candidates generally.

Fascinatingly, some of the most bizarre constituency results last year were produced in fights between ethnic minority candidates themselves, such as in Bradford West and in Bethnal Green and Bow, the latter being where the local Bengali community put its traditional pro-Labour loyalties behind it to produce a six-percent swing to the Conservative Bengali candidate and against Labour’s Oona King, a “mixed-race” Afro-Caribbean Jew.

Where the white population has previously elevated the importance of “race” beyond considerations of class politics (or anything else), it is now the ethnic minority population that seems to be doing it. Though in some ways understandable, it is still no more justified for that. For if the 1997 election demonstrated anything it was that a confused and ideologically rootless working class is one that is most prone to the slick blandishments of handsome young spin doctors and their pet vultures.


Lenin rehashed

The Future Socialist Society by John Molyneux. SWP. £2.

For some reason, the SWP have decided to reissue this notorious pamphlet which first came out in 1987 and which exposes that what they mean by socialism is not the real thing but (as we pointed out in our review in the October 1987 Socialist Standard) a Leninist state.

One of the early measures an SWP government (which is envisaged as coming to power not through elections but as “the party which has led the revolution”) would take would be to abolish universal suffrage:

“There will not be complete universal suffrage because the nature of the system will exclude the old bourgeoisie and its main associates from the electoral process” (p. 9).

The claim is that because the new electoral process will be based on soviets, i. e. on voting at work (and not necessarily by secret ballot), capitalists as non-workers won’t have a vote. But once capitalists have been expropriated (in the SWP’s scenario, by the state) they will cease to be capitalists and so would have to work for the state in order to live. So why would they still be excluded from voting in the places where they would be working? And why would their “main associates”, identified elsewhere (p. 12) as “sections of the middle class” who would therefore have jobs, be excluded? There is only one explanation: all these people are to be disfranchised not because of their economic position but because of their political views as real or imagined opponents of the new government. The Russian Bolsheviks, on whom the SWP model themselves, also began by banning “pro-capitalist” opponents. They ended up banning all opponents.

On economic policy, whereas socialists (and Marx) envisage the abolition of the wages system, the SWP promises that “the wages of the working class, and especially the low paid, will be rapidly increased” (p. 21). So the wages system, which reflects the non-ownership of the means of production by the majority, is to continue, the only difference being that it would be administered by an SWP government that will have nationalised everything. This is state capitalism, not socialism.

Just as over depriving opponents of the right to vote so with regard to technical experts, an SWP government would follow the same policy as the Russian Bolsheviks. We are told that “if absolutely necessary they will have to perform with workers’ guns at their heads” (p. 15). It is not just the absurdity of such a proposition that is significant here–even the capitalists discovered long ago that workers can’t be coerced by guns and whips into working efficiently, and technical experts are of course workers–but the authoritarian reflex that the SWP has inherited from Lenin and Trotsky.

The good news is that there is never going to be an SWP government. Bolshevik-Leninist ideas are so discredited by what happened in Russia that there is no possibility of large numbers of workers being taken in by them again. Once bitten, twice shy.


Historic error

Historical Dictionary of Socialism. By James C. Docherty, Scarecrow Press, 1997.

This book follows academic convention by saying that socialism defies precise definition and then proceeds to give emphasis to the policies and actions of Labour, Social-Democratic and “Socialist” organisations and individuals around the world. One result of this viewpoint is that Blair, Anthony Charles Lynton (1953- ) gets over twice as much space as Morris, William (1834-1896).

A common thread uniting many of the self-styled “Socialist” organisations has been a defence of the welfare state, although as Docherty points out the idea can be traced back to Thomas Paine who suggested comprehensive welfare benefits to combat poverty in Rights of Man (1791). But the welfare state has also been pursued by non-Socialists and anti-Socialists. For example, in late nineteenth century Germany, Bismarck introduced a number of welfare measures, such as unemployment insurance, in the belief that he was fighting socialism.

In Britain the Liberal Party was the first to establish the principles of the welfare state in the Old Age Pensions Act of 1908 (based on the German model) and then in subsequent legislation, and it was the Liberal MP William Beveridge whose Report in 1942 coined the phrase “welfare state”. And now in Britain we have the spectacle of Tories leaping to the defence of the welfare state against Labour government cuts in spending. Confused? Well, if you take the viewpoint that socialism is what “Socialists” do, then you should be.

Docherty claims that Marx’s labour theory of value “was used to justify the argument that labour should be paid more than simply a subsistence wage.” Marx did indeed argue that workers should get more than a subsistence, but not a wage. His whole point was that the wages system (including salaries, employees and employers, workers and bosses) was the means whereby we are legally robbed of what we produce. This leaves many begging for crumbs off the rich man’s table via the welfare state.

Socialism, as originally used by the followers of Robert Owen in the 1820s and later made famous by Marx , will be a system of society where production takes place directly for human needs. This is still the only sensible way of understanding socialism, and not the Alice in Wonderland world where words mean whatever anyone says they mean.

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