The Labour Party: unionism, reformism and “betrayal”
Today, only a high ranking or committed Labourite would refuse to admit that the Labour Party is anything other than a political party of capitalism. Like any other party of capitalism, it has made promises to better the lot of the workers, establish comfort and equality, do away with crime, and bring peace and security to the population. Like any other party of capitalism, it has failed to deliver.
Seeing that the promised land has eluded them, many supporters of Labour who held high hopes will feel disillusioned. Many will join the Leninists, many will give up on politics and stick with a “they are all the same” attitude to political parties, and some will even join the extreme right. None of these changes in political attitude will ever deal with the fundamental problems of society, since the problem doesn’t lie with a particular party or leader, but with the economic foundation of society itself.
This economic foundation is a simple one of production for profit. In capitalism, if a profit cannot be obtained, production will stop, regardless of the consequences. This has always been so, and the Labour Party and the unions have been hard pressed to change this, simply because they refuse to consider an alternative. Since many people still associate Labour with socialism, and since Labour cannot deliver they assume socialism will not deliver, the supposed link between the Labour Party and socialism needs to be addressed.
An un-Marxist beginning
In 1900 the Labour Party took its fledgling steps in the form of the Labour Representation Committee, a pressure group for the interests of the trade unions. Several organisations were present at the founding conference of this group, including the Independent Labour Party, the Fabian society, and the Social Democratic Federation. In the latter’s case, its organisation become so distinctly anti-democratic and un-socialist that a political revolt occurred leading to the founding of the Socialist Party of Great Britain. The SDF had termed reformism as “stepping stones to socialism”, which would lead the entire party into the circular battleground of fighting for reforms and then trying to make them work within the profit system, with the result that the socialist revolution would take second place to reforms. The so-called “impossibilists”, who were to create the SPGB, believed the road of reformism was a diversion from the task of building socialism. They were naturally outraged at the undemocratic methods of the SDF’s leader, Henry Hyndman, who treated the party as his own personal organisation, exercising control over much of its electoral platform and propaganda.
However this was not by any means the only case of political friction around that time. Before the split in the SDF occurred, there was friction with the LRC. It refused to even admit the existence of the class struggle or commit itself to socialism in the Marxist sense. This would cause the SDF, partly prompted by the as yet undeveloped “impossibilist” faction, to leave the LRC. This refusal by the very organisation that would become the Labour Party to accept a basic truth of socialism i.e. the existence of class antagonisms, casts massive doubt on Labour’s past claims to be a socialist party.
In 1906, after winning seats in parliament, the LRC officially changed its name to the Labour Party. The intention was for it to become the permanent representation of the trade unions within parliament. From the start, the trade union majority in the former LRC had no real intentions of bringing about a socialist society, but simply attempting to work within the capitalist system. This has been the blight of the unions for some time now; they remain committed to simply struggling within the rules of capitalism.
The LRC, and later the Labour Party, did not stand for socialism. At most it stood for state management of the capitalist economy. The word “socialism” was certainly branded on the party to gather popular support, since at the time socialism was not as discredited (falsely) as it is now.
Although it’s now clear that trade unions are not the “schools of socialism” they were once seen to be, they should not be written off out of hand. Without them, the workers have no economic weapon to defend themselves against the encroachments of capital. Capitalists would be able to consistently obtain labour-power below its value, instead of being made to pay something nearer its full price. The importance of the unions is therefore clear; a worker in a trade union will generally be closer to class consciousness than any other. They have realised their position in the world as a creator of wealth, and that some form of exploitation is going on that needs to be checked. The failing is simply not bringing this realisation to its logical conclusion: the complete restructuring of society to end this exploitation of which they strive against.
This is where socialist action on the political field becomes an objective – action that does not simply seek to hold off some of the exploitation inherent in capitalist society, but that seeks to abolish it and bring about a truly co-operative and non-exploitive world. Unions are economic weapons on the battlefield of class war, but unfortunately, thanks to the efforts of reformist or right wing union leaders, they remain committed to simply striving for economic gains within the system.
Thus, the Labour Party, claiming to be the party of union representation in parliament, has never been able to reconcile the war between capital and Labour. When they have been in power, they, as the supposed party of the working class, are in a bizarre situation. They are attempting to take the reins of the very system (the capitalist system of capital accumulation) that is in direct contradiction with the purpose of trade unions, which is the opposition of the encroachments of capital. Undoubtedly, this leads to a circular political free for all, as Labour attempt to introduce union legislation and still try to balance it with the profit system. Obviously, this is no way to bring about socialism.
The view that trade union action on its own is unable to bring about socialism was stated several times by Marx, and remains valid to this day: “They (The unions) ought not to forget that they are fighting with effects, but not with the cause of those effects; that they are retarding the downward movement, but not changing its direction; they are applying palliatives, not curing the malady.”
Not curing the malady? Too true, trade union action alone has failed to remove the class antagonisms present in the capitalist world we live in. It has made some excellent gains, certainly saving large sections of the working class from even greater abuse, but the fundamentals of exploitation and class antagonisms remain.
“To secure for the producers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry, and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible, upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry and service.”
So runs clause 4, adopted by the Labour Party in 1918. This use of language is very much in the trend of classical Marxist propaganda. Unfortunately, it was and still remains an abstract statement, with no concrete meaning behind it. Since the start the Labour Party has been the party of reformism i.e. of reforming capitalism, not bringing about socialism.
The point in time clause 4 was adopted also requires examination. At that time, the Bolsheviks of the old feudal Russian Empire had successfully carried through their minority revolution to hasten capitalism and, mistakenly, working class feeling in Britain was somewhat sympathetic to the Leninists. The reasons for this are many, but essentially then as now the Leninists hide behind socialist rhetoric while standing for state control of a capitalist economy. Fearing a massive increase in Bolshevik style sentiment in Britain, the most prominent reformist power in the Labour Party, the Fabian Society, set to work anaesthetising worker militancy. Thus Clause 4 was created, clearly taking on the style of writing that Marx and other socialists were known for, but there was little intention of enacting it in any real way, as time has shown us.
The occasional mention of “common ownership” by Labour is certainly not intended as common ownership in the socialist sense, that of direct democratic control by the associated producers, but the nation-state taking over the role as receiver of surplus value instead of the individual capitalist. This was made quite clear when the original wording of the clause was amended in 1929 to add a reference to the “means of exchange”, by which was meant banks but the existence of banks is incompatible with common ownership. What Clause 4 envisaged was a simple change from a standard free market capitalist economy to a nationalised “state capitalist” method.
Nationalisation has proved in the past to be not even a particularly effective way of running a profit economy, and such industries were not exempt from strikes and mass sackings. And all this from industries in so-called “public ownership”, that were meant to belong to the workers. As time went on Clause 4 became an embarrassment to those in Labour who were gradually attempting to steer the party away from the more radical elements and closer to the centre, hence the attempt by Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell in 1956 to remove it. He failed. Since then it has continued to be a cause of embarrassment for party leaders attempting to change the party to a more central position in politics.
How often have disillusioned Labour supporters and voters cried “betrayal!”? Why has this been the case, that when the Labour Party have been in power, they have been obliged to continue to treat the working class badly? It’s a simple matter of understanding economic systems. Since its birth the Labour Party has been committed to running capitalism, and it has continued to do so. The social and economic problems we face are due to the capitalist system, not to some individual leaders being less benevolent than others. In capitalism, workers are dependant on finding a buyer for our labour-power. If they can’t, they are in a lot of trouble, as they have no way to survive. If they can find a buyer, their labour-power is bought as a commodity on the market, and they are exploited in a manner where they create greater values than they receive back as wages.
What to do about this unjust system? Many parties throughout the years have claimed a desire to change the way we live for the better. Unfortunately, their tactics and methods have proved wanting. The Leninist groups in the country simply seek to establish a state controlled economy such as the former USSR, with the workers remaining economically exploited and politically subdued. They too claim allegiance to socialism and Marx, something that is incredibly bizarre seeing that they hold democratic control by the working class in contempt.
What of the Labour Party itself? As stated, they did seek to reform capitalism in the hope that perhaps a sudden change will take place and capitalism will prove to be a fair and fulfilling society for all its members. Now as the natural conclusion to reformism has completely overrun them, they are a simple party of capitalist maintenance, with objectives of some form of new society being not just shunted into the background but completely out of existence. They are now more dedicated than ever to running with optimal efficiency the very system that creates poverty, misery, homelessness and war. As for those old Labourites who blame all on the mistakes of the past and present on certain leaders, this simply adds to the argument against leadership. In any case, the leader as a individual is irrelevant. Knocking one leader out of office and replacing them with another won’t change the system, and it’s the system that all attention should be focused on if we desire a radical change in the way we live.