2000s >> 2001 >> no-1162-may-2001

Reformist excuses and Labourite deceit

It was with some amusement that this socialist picked up a copy of the recent Fabian pamphlet The Case for Socialism. Published by an organisation that has never been committed to socialism, I wondered at what the contents might be. I didn’t expect too much as the Fabian Society as now constituted has been described as “Blair’s shock troops” and has been at the forefront of trying to “redefine” socialism. As I read I realised that what “redefinition” meant was the wholesale bastardisation of the term to justify a century of attempts by the Labour Party and its affiliates to tweak capitalism by use of the state.

To some extent socialists have to acknowledge that the “welfare” state, the NHS and so on, made living standards for some sections of the working class better than they had been under rampant capitalism and its early ideology of laissez faire, although these ends should never be confused with socialism. However, the pamphlet justifies the developments of the last twenty years whereby the Labour Party, and the labour movement generally, has abandoned even these limited aims. Socialists appreciate the honesty that this has brought about, with members of the Labour Party no longer claiming to be able to bring about a qualitatively new society through nationalisation and so on but seeking only to make capitalism’s worst aspects slightly less bad. What socialists don’t appreciate, however, is the century of deceit of the working class that Labourism has involved. Promising crumbs off the master’s table has diverted attention away from the attempts by definite socialists to secure the whole loaf.

The pamphlet’s author, Paul Richards, suggests that “socialism is about more than visions; it is about the practical steps to get there”. Given his later claim that “Revisionism is the political method whereby socialists ensure the policies they espouse reflect the times they live in”, or, to paraphrase, socialism is a great idea but will it get us elected, it is no surprise that he concludes that the “transition to socialism is like walking towards the horizon: no matter how long the journey, you never arrive”. That the Labour Party has nothing to do with socialism as a practical end is summed up in his view that in politics “It is the journey that matters, not the destination.”

The main thrust of the pamphlet is a weak theoretical justification for the Blairite “modernisers” who are asserting in the name of socialism a humanistic communitarian philosophy which has as its basis the new Labour Clause Four and Paul Ricards states that this replaced the old one constructed by Sidney Webb in 1918 because the old one could mean “whatever you wanted”; but if the old one could mean anything, the new one means nothing at all to anyone apart from the new governors of “cool Britannia”. Pluralism is the order of the day, there apparently being “as many socialisms as there are socialists”.

In this pamphlet and in another by the Fabian Society Radicals and Reformers: A Century of Fabian Thought (ed. Mark Thomas and Guy Lodge) the new left in the Labour Party is trying to justify its actions in two ways. Firstly, by trying to establish itself in the tradition of socialist revisionism and, secondly, by suggesting that structural economic and social change has made new revision necessary. It is quite true that politicians seeking to be elected to run capitalism, albeit to try to reform it, must be concerned to appeal to the widest number of voters. What this has nothing to do with of course is socialism, which is the desire to establish a qualitatively different social and economic basis. “Socialist” revisionism has never been concerned with the establishment of socialism but merely with the operation of so-called socialist parties in the politics of the capitalist state.

Founded in 1884 it, with Sidney and Beatrice Webb and Bernard Shaw among its prominent members, was initially a body for socialist discussion and meetings. The influence of Sidney Webb in particular, however, quickly led to a view of socialism quite at odds with socialism. For the Fabians all progress must be by slow, gradual struggle, reform-by-reform, within the law and over a lengthy period of time. “The inevitability of gradualism” became its well-known phrase and was outlined in the Fabian Essays (1889). Thus for socialism to become a reality, for the Fabians, meant an evolutionary process and not revolution. Also, its vision of the society of the future was akin to some sort of efficient state bureaucracy rather than the world of free access and possibilities for human happiness depicted by William Morris’s News From Nowhere (1890).

It is instructive to read an analysis of the early Fabian Society by a contemporary party with definite socialist aims, that is the Socialist Party, the only party then as now committed to the establishment of socialism, and nothing but:

“The Fabian Society also [as well as the SDF] poses as a Socialist organisation for we are told that this Society ‘consists of Socialists’. It is indeed composed of middle-class men who naturally deny the class struggle, profess to believe in permeating the capitalist class with Socialism, and hold that the tendency of society is towards government by the expert. Fabianism therefore tends towards the rule of the bureaucrats, or that section of the educated middle class. The Fabians are the cult of the civil service, and are Socialists neither in name nor fact . . . Fabianism, that peculiarly British product, is merely a manifestation of the intellectual bankruptcy of the capitalist-class” (Manifesto of the Socialist Party of Great Britain, 1905, p.11).

The rejection of Marxist theory in all its aspects by the Fabian Society has resulted in an organisation committed to producing idea after idea concerned with reforming one aspect or another of capitalism. Noticeably, after over a century of reforms and not a few Labour governments, the Fabians, if they stopped to seriously reflect, would find that, like a dog chasing its tail, reform has been followed by a fresh attack by capital on a new front or the reverse of past reforms by the avowed representatives of capital.

As to claims that social and economic change in the late twentieth century has made past class experience and socialist thought irrelevant, one glance at world governments’ own current statistics will reveal the greatest concentration of the means of production amongst the smallest proportion of the population in the history of human relations and consequently the most iniquitous social and economic system in the history of humankind. Whether the bulk of that part of the population that works for a wage works in a factory or a call centre, with its hands or brains, works for the same firm or “flexibly”, rides the bus or owns their car, rents or owns their houses, buys from a shop or over the internet, thinks of itself broadly as a homogenous class or not, works for a “foreign” firm or not, makes no difference. The fact is that all those having no access to the means of living, the working class, must work for those who have, the owning or capitalist class, at a rate less than the value of labour contained in their work. Thus “globalisation”, incidentally no new development, is not a recent phenomenon for the working class, just an acceleration of an existing process.

The Fabian Society may have ridden the roundabout of reformism and, having enjoyed the ride, want to go round again, but socialists want no part in this fraud. Social happiness, common ownership, free access, democratic control; all can be achieved by the working class. The interests of the owners of the means of living dictates, on the other hand, that profits, obtained from the labour of those with no access to the means of living, are the end to which society shall be organised. And this class, having at its disposal the power of the state and the means of communication, succeed very well in presenting their own interests as those of us all, despite the fact of a fundamental clash of interests between capital and the vast bulk of the world’s population, the working class, which has no interest in the continuance of the minority ownership of the means of production. Humans can then begin their own history, free from the constraints of profit and class struggle, but must, as a precondition, firstly abolish the current decadent capitalist system and replace it with the new society, socialism.

The concept of class struggle and of revolution is alien to the rose-tinted reformists of the British left characterised by the Fabian Society and the Labour Party. This means they will be content to see every gain as the building of barriers against the tide of capitalism only to see them smashed down with the next tide. The Socialist Party, on the other hand, knows its task well; to carry on the political struggle against capitalism and its political representatives and, so doing, to bring about its rapid demise. Only by recognising the intrinsic struggle between capital and labour, and acting to bring about the victory of labour, of the working class and its interests, can classes once and for all be abolished, common ownership be established, and real human interests and relationships begin.


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