The Tolpuddle Martyrs, 1834

The establishment of a system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth by and in the interest of the whole community”.

The above will be familiar to members of the Socialist Party as the party’s object. It was, however, found on a web site celebrating the commemoration of the Tolpuddle martyrs ( It demonstrates the extraordinary range of appeal that the memory of the “Dorset martyrs” still holds, from all sections of the left of capitalism.

The remembrance of the persecution of early unionism and the celebration of the ultimate triumph, both of reprieve of the martyrs and the ultimate widespread growth of trade unionism, seems to provoke outbursts of seeming socialist ambition. The tradition still continues, this year on 20 and 21 July with the annual TUC rally in Tolpuddle. Like all such occasions marking the history of working class struggle, the left makes it an opportunity to bluster about its “values” and, largely invented, history. These displays, of course, are in stark contrast to the reality of the achievements of the left and the tattered remnants of its ambitions.

The use of a socialist object in relation to the annual Tolpuddle rally is appropriate in recording the contribution made by working men and women in a period of rapid social change and industrial advance, accompanied by political persecution. Such resistance as was heroically given by those convicted of forming a union at Tolpuddle deserves to be remembered, along with other early political movements (such as Owenism, Chartism, republicanism) that allowed the eventual formulation of a socialist political party to be possible. But the use of socialist slogans by trade unionists and political parties whose aims are a long way short of anything approaching socialism is mere canting hypocrisy.

It may seem rather too obvious, to those fetishising “struggle”, but what the cause of socialism needs is socialists. The struggles of the working class of the last two hundred years should tell us one thing – that it is futile to seek to fight a rearguard action against capitalism. The most successful movements of the nineteenth century and twentieth centuries had programmes that sought to maximise gains within emergent and rapidly expanding industrial capitalism. In politics, the Chartists challenged for political democracy, the success of which may have had revolutionary implications. In social thought, Owenism provided a critique of competition, combining the need for co-operation and the potential of harnessing of machines to humankind rather than the harnessing of workers to machines. In the economic sphere, trade unionism sought to increase the standard of living of the working class, including moves towards general unionism and, in the first decades of the twentieth century, syndicalism.

Socialists of course recognise the limitations of these movements. Chartism and trade unionism sought to increase the power of the working class, while Owenism tried to transcend it despite being at base a paternal, regulated capitalism. The threads and influence of all three, however, can be seen in the emergence of Marxian thought and the development of a programme emphasising the need to replace capitalism according to the design of the workers rather than reform the worst aspects of existing society.

The struggle of the working class to build a new society, replacing capitalist private ownership and competition with common ownership and production for use rather than profit resulted in the emergence, by the late nineteenth century of a growing movement pressing for something approaching socialism. The challenge recognised the nature of the source of working class exploitation in the productive process and saw poverty, material and mental, next to vast accumulations of private capital amidst the productive potential for material abundance for all.

It is unfortunate that as it grew, working class opposition to capitalism reacted to its partial concessions from capital by withdrawing its ambition from social revolution to social reformation. Here emerged, not the replacement of capitalism by socialism, but the incorporation of “labour” into existing productive relations. Paradoxically, the ideological justification for this (the “gradual” advance of working class interests rather than “inexpedient” socialism now) has not produced, by the twenty-first century, an emergent socialist society, but an almost complete withdrawal of most inheritors of this kind of position from any kind of programme which comes close to criticism of modern capitalist society.

So, what to do? No surprise here, I am afraid. No easy ways out. If you want socialism then you should be a socialist. If we, collectively as socialists, want socialism then we should make socialists. How is this to be done? Well, we can rule out “gradual” reform. A hundred years of that has brought us further back than we were in the beginning. What about a programme of ambitious reforms first with a genuine desire for revolution later—a “dialectical” strategic disappointment and a vanguard leadership for workers when they realise that capitalism cannot be reformed without new problems (inflation, for example)? Well, if you want someone else to direct you, if you want to work for a programme you know will fail, if you want to lie to lead, well, yes. But if not, if you regard democracy as important, then it is necessary to recognise that it is us, the working class, who must make socialism for ourselves and that we cannot be led to socialism.

As for programmes, if you want to work for union rights, benefits, full employment, against war, just name your cause, then join the Labour party to try and make them make promises or the Socialist Alliance or the ex-Militants who make promises they cannot keep. And, in ten or twenty years time, be prepared to be no further forward than you are now.

If people vote for an “ethical” foreign policy or an increase in public spending, in the name of socialism, and all they get is broken promises, because the global finance pulls the plug, or roaring inflation, then people will think that is what socialism is. Simple. However, if people vote for capitalism, in the name of capitalism, and get capitalism, then they might want something else. This has happened to some extent with the disillusion over New Labour and there is promise in the new (and growing?) “anti-capitalist” movement.

If it is solutions to world poverty you want, to insecurity, to global power politics, to war, then socialism, production for use not profit under democratic control (not just as a slogan but as actuality), that offers a positive solution, rather than valid but hopeless criticism. By all means let us defend and increase our share of the wealth we produce in capitalism. But if you want more than this, if we want something else, something better in the twenty-first century and beyond than we had in the decadent twentieth century, if you want something to work for rather than against, if you want socialism, then join the socialists.

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