Book Reviews

What is class?

Industrial Nation. Work, Culture and Society in Scotland, 1800-present. By W. W. Knox. Edinburgh University Press.

This is a history of the working class in Scotland—or, more accurately, as the title suggests, of the “traditional” working class, i.e. manual, in fact essentially skilled manual, workers in mining and heavy industry—by a professional historian.

These days there are plenty of people who say that class is irrelevant and that in fact it never was. Knox is not amongst these (after all, he is a former member of the Socialist Party). Clearly, since 1800 a section of society has seen itself as constituting “the working class(es)” and in the 20th century this found expression on the political field in the Labour Party (literally, the party of Labour). It is true that the Labour Party never was a revolutionary, socialist party but merely sought a better deal for the working class within capitalism. In this, however, it accurately reflected the views of those who voted for it and otherwise generally supported it.

This may not have been how Marx envisaged things developing—he expected the working class to develop from a mere economic category (a “class in itself”) into a revolutionary political actor (a “class for itself”)—but at least the process started even if it did get stuck on route as it were. A “class consciousness” did develop among particular sections of the working class but this did not develop into a revolutionary socialist consciousness. It stopped at trade-unionism and Labourism, the idea and practice of the working class as a class within capitalism but which wanted a better deal within this system, not to replace it with a classless and exploitation-free society. Indeed, there is a school of thought which argues that this—incorporation of the working class into the political structures of capitalist society—has been the historic role, even the conscious aim, of trade unions and the Labour Party.

So, even if a working class “for itself” has never developed, a class consciousness of a lesser sort did, and it is this that Knox studies in relation to Scotland. In contrast to England, a number of differences stand out. First, partly as a result of the Highland clearances, anti-landlordism was more widespread in Scotland, reflected in the domination of the Liberal Party there up to 1914. Second, emigration of both Protestants and Catholics from Ireland kept alive religious sectarianism. Third, there was the ILP, the Independent Labour Party.

Knox argues that the ILP inherited the programme of radical Liberalism (anti-landlordism, Scottish Home Rule, republicanism, pacifism, teetotalism, and municipal “socialism”) and was largely an expression of the views of the apprentice-trained skilled craft workers, who were male and, due to discrimination against Catholics, Protestant. They were respectable workers who didn’t drink or swear or beat their wife (or so we are told) and considered themselves a cut above the rest of the working class who lived in slums and worked as labourers or depended on the poor law. Until 1932 the ILP was to all intents and purposes the Labour Party in Scotland, but in that year it committed political suicide by disaffiliating from Labour and trying to go it alone.

Knox sees the disaffiliation of the ILP as a key event in the history of Labour in Scotland because it meant that—in a sense, provided the opportunity for—the Labour Party to reconstitute itself on a new and different basis, as a party which rejected pacifism, Home Rule and republicanism and which embraced state intervention, including nationalisation at UK level, as the way forward; in other words, a state capitalism run by remote planners and bureaucrats such as was implemented by the post-war Attlee Labour government and which has now come to be known as Old Labourism.

While many workers in England deserted Labour for Thatcher in the 1980s, workers in Scotland continued to support Labour. Knox explains this by the fact that many more workers in Scotland than in England are dependent on the state for jobs, housing and income and also by a continuing acceptance of the “core values of democracy, fairness and social justice” inherited from the radical Liberalism of the 19th century. In his view, this is why free-market Toryism will never get a look-in in Scotland and why, as Blair continues Thatcher’s campaign against the “nanny State”, the workers in Scotland may choose to express these underlying core values in some kind of radical nationalism.

One criticism of the book would be that it is a history only of one section of Marx’s “working class in itself”, i.e. the class of those forced by economic necessity to sell their ability to work in order to live, in that it ignores non-manual workers. Towards the end the amorphous term “middle class” even creeps in. These now even constitute a majority of the working class in itself. Indeed, it could be said that the reality behind the claim that “we’re all middle class now” could be more accurately expressed by saying “we’re all working class now”.

Finally, a quibble perhaps, but surely Knox knows that the British Socialist Party (the reformist party which eventually provided the bulk of the members of the British Communist Party in 1921) was not, like the British Socialist Labour Party, a “splinter group” from the SDF. It was the name adopted by the SDF when in 1911 it merged with a breakaway from the ILP. Could it be that his proof-reader confused (as Lenin once did) the BSP with the SPGB (which could indeed be described as a “splinter group” from the SDF)?


Utopia or socialism?

Yes – Utopia! – we have the technology. Ron Cook. Self published. Available on-line at £1; or as a 191-page paperback produced to order by the author for £5 plus postage (£1.50 UK, £3 overseas). Order from Ron Cook, 11 Dagger Lane, West Bromwich B71 4BT (cheques, sterling only, payable to “Ron Cook”).

There is a lot to like in this book, written by a long-standing member of Birmingham Branch of the Socialist Party. It is a well-researched analysis of contemporary capitalism, together with speculations about a possible and desirable future. Ron Cook is a keen technophile and much of his book reflects this stance. There are more references to computers than to revolution, more to machines than to education,. But he is by no means obsessed with technology. His 16 chapters range over democracy, production, shopping, crime and violence, women and children, and much else.

The book essentially puts the case for socialism, but instead of using that word utopia is substituted for it. Why can perhaps be guessed at.

There will probably be two main kinds of reader of the book. One kind will already know something about socialism. At various points in the book those readers will come across the word utopia. They will learn that utopia is something to be established by knowledgeable people who don’t need leaders. In utopia there will be freedom and scope for personal fulfilment. There will be no money in utopia. So when readers of the first kind learn that utopia is going to be that kind of world they can be forgiven for thing “But isn’t that what the Socialist Party stands for?”.

The second kind of reader won’t have come across the idea of socialism except as described by one of the capitalism-supporting parties or writers. They will read about utopia as discussed in the book and they may well like the idea of it. But there isn’t actually a Utopian Party – or even a utopian movement worth talking about. So to get anywhere they will have to look around and see what other organisation expresses the author’s views, which they would like to know more about and perhaps even join. And the answer is, of course – the Socialist Party.

In defence of the use of the word utopia, it has to be admitted that the word socialism does carry a lot of unfortunate baggage. But so does utopia. Labelling things is easy. But when the same label is attached to different packages it becomes necessary to inspect the packages. I hope the book has a future. But in a revised edition I personally would like him to seriously consider changing the title to something like “Yes – Socialism! – we have the vision and the means”.


The new reformism

French Socialists Before Marx: Workers, Women and the Social Question in France by Pamela Pilbeam. London: Acumen, 2000. £14.99.

The emergence of the new Labourite and general European “plural left” in politics of the late 20th century has resulted in the rewriting of the history of working-class politics. No longer seen as a linear history, the “rise of the Labour Movement”, “socialism” so-called is now deemed a cyclical rise and fall of various progressive trends in which state intervention was only one option. This view, it is true, has been expressed ever since the disappointments of state ownership sent Labour politicians back to the drawing board in the 1950s and 1960s.

In recent times, however, with the conclusion of Labour’s shift from the left, the search has been on for a new historical tradition for British capitalism’s new political elite. Throughout the 1990s many books and pamphlets on this theme culminated in the will-o’-the-wisp that was the Third Way but still the output of the reformers-turned-reactionaries trundles on, the lack of any content beyond the oft-repeated mantras being no bar.

Pamela Pilbeam’s recent book on early French socialism falls into this bracket, despite offering some original historical insights. The book’s aim is clearly laid out as being to assert “the vitality and relevance of plural socialism in the first half of the 19th century, to show that the social question was addressed by a range of methods and led to a variety of milestones, but the underlying goal was to make society fairer”, slap in the middle of the aforementioned revision.

Pilbeam goes to some lengths to claim the utopians and social radicals of early 19th-century France in the “socialist” camp, against a body of historical opinion that rightly has defined Saint-Simonianism, Fourierism and other schemes of social improvement as too vague to even be termed “socialist” (meaning reformist). This amorphous section of social reformers, claimed as socialists, were apparently held together by “the same initial starting point, the 1789 Revolution; a belief in the value of education; the need to improve the legal and educational status of women; address contemporary employment problems through co-operative, no capitalist, enterprises, and above all, take concrete actions to attack the social question. Many also had profound religious convictions”.

There certainly were many early or proto-socialists in France in the period covered by Pilbeam’s book (1820s to 1840s) but they were not “before Marx”; they developed at the same time and influenced his political development; they were not utopians or reformist tinkerers, they were revolutionaries who talked of the class struggle and working-class emancipation. Of these revolutionaries there is little said, except in reference to the Babouvist tradition of revolutionary violence (which was indeed prevalent although later rejected by Marx).

There are positive sides to this work, however. It serves to confirm Fourier as a utopian crackpot despite the author’s best efforts and provides a good account of the roots of the politics of working-class reformism and – its most original contribution – serves to highlight the role of women in the movements which, however incomplete, were reactions against the onslaught of industrial capitalism. For the 21st century, however, it is Marxian contributions to socialist analysis, rather than the utopianism and reformism of Fourierism and Saint-Simonianism, that offers the way forward for the working class.


William Morris and art

William Morris: The Art of Socialism by Ruth Kinna. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2000. £14.99.

This is a series of titles on the theme “Political Philosophy Now”. As such it purports to reveal the relevance of William Morris’s political thought to the present. Most of the book, though, is an examination of Morris’s literature and the political context of his socialism, with only the introduction and conclusion displaying any attempt to reveal contemporary relevance for Morris’s socialism. However, the sections on Morris’s literature, the importance of art to the development of his political thought and especially the contemporary political background will be informative to those interested in Morris or the background to the emergence of revolutionary socialism in the 19th century. Ironically, it is where the book briefly tries to find relevance for Morris’s socialism that it is least worth reading, trying as it does to square reformism with revolutionary socialism.

The opening chapter rightly criticises those on the left who have tried to attach the legacy of Morris’s inspirational revolutionary socialist creed to whichever political fad is in vogue. Thus Morris has been subject to the claims of left-wingers anxious to establish a tradition for Labourism, libertarianism, utopianism, green politics and, most recently, “New” Labourism. In this vein Tony Wright has tried to reduce Morris’s relevance to a mere vision of an ideal, impractical because Wright supposes “Marxism” has failed, but somehow in a plural tradition of progressive visions. One only has to have a limited knowledge of Morris’s political writings to know that claims placing his politics in any other category than that of revolutionary socialism is historical fantasy and political falsehood. The central concern of Morris’s political thought, of socialism, is the abolition of capitalism and its replacement by a social system allowing for further human progress unrestricted by the constraints of the profit system and this remains its crucial relevance.

Although the author criticises attempts to bastardise Morris’s political thought for leftist and other ends, she proceeds to fall into the same shoddy practice. Inspired, no doubt, by the author’s own reformist tendencies, in the conclusion, Morris’s socialism is said to be outdated and his appeal is reduced to the desire to end poverty, the necessity for creative and attractive labour, the importance of meaningful education and, here the author is really stretching the bounds of credulity, an interest in the question of “national identity”. The irony is that (the last concept excepted as an irrelevance) if these aims are to be achieved it is precisely this sort of partial reading of Morris’s relevance which has to be overcome. By seeking to concentrate on values, or aspects of social change, the analytical whole is lost and with it the possibility of fruitful political understanding of the relevance of all-encompassing socialist revolution.

There are many better books on Morris available but it is his own works that still remain some of the best for understanding the pressing need for socialism.


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