2000s >> 2005 >> no-1206-february-2005

Should the Left consider Socialism?

The question arises through a controversy in my local newspaper which started with a letter headed “Ireland breeds strange brand of socialists”.  The writer alludes to Sinn Fein and the Social Democratic and Labour Party, both of whom claim socialist credentials, and argues that both are sectarian organisations – in the politico-religious sense of that term. As evidence, the anonymous writer cites the fact that the two organisations concerned are overwhelmingly Catholic in membership and, thus, “unlike other socialists throughout the world” and leftist parties and governments, they are unable to make pronouncements and formulate policies concerning abortion, IVF screening, stem cell research and euthanasia.

Whatever might be said about the accuracy or otherwise of this view, it reflects the fact that ‘the Left’ in its multifarious facets is usually associated with ubiquitously ‘progressive’ causes, which, whatever their merits, do not amount to socialism. Factually, both ‘progressive’ and ‘reactionary’ attitudes to social or ethical issues are focused on the question of how the existing form of society, capitalism, should deal with such questions.  What is more, support for and opposition to such issues is rarely the preserve of a particular political tendency.

That of course is not true of the Left’s claim on socialism. Here there is general approbation within the diverse organisations of the Left: their common objective is “socialism”. The problem is that socialism has become simply an indivisible but undefined catchword. Ask the question, “What is socialism?” and you get a multiplicity of answers. As far as the public-at-large is concerned, it is probably true to say that it really does accept the idea that socialism is what the Labour Party does when in office. 

That raises more questions than it answers. Currently, what Labour is doing in office is breaking the sacred tenets of what earlier Labour governments did, much to the ire of Old Labour supporters. Back at its roots, when the Labour Representation Committee became the British Labour Party, in 1906, Labour was truly “a broad church”. Its backbone was the Trade Unions seeking political clout for workers then, as now, living within capitalism.  Additionally, there were the myriad interests of supporters of many commonly regarded ‘progressive’ causes. These, probably the numerically superior members of the new party, saw in Labour the means to redress problems or advance causes within the framework of capitalist society.

To suggest today to a member of New or Old Labour that socialism involves the abolition of the wages system, and the production of goods and services solely for use in a world of common ownership and democratic control of the means of wealth production, would surely invite derision. But, at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries such a definition would not have raised an eyebrow within the ranks of those who regarded themselves as socialists.  What did divide them was the means by which socialism could be obtained. 

On one side of that division were those who claimed that, because socialism could only be established on a foundation of human co-operation, its achievement necessitated democratic political action to bring about a conscious majority dedicated to its achievement.  Given that majority, delegates could then be elected to parliament mandated to abolishing the legal structures of capitalism and formally empowering the establishment of socialism.

But others long-fingered socialism on the grounds that the achievement of a majority would take too long.  Instead, this element opted for a policy of immediate demands aimed at the amelioration of the worst excesses of capitalism and gradually changing that system by a process of piecemeal reforms until over a period capitalism would evolve into socialism. How has this policy fared?

There have been nine Labour governments, covering seven periods of Labour rule, since the party emerged out of the Labour Representation Committee. Central to Labour’s programme from the beginning up to the mid-1960’s was a programme of nationalisation of basic industries. But it wasn’t until the period of the all-party government of WW2 that aspirations of general social reform directly affecting the citizen were firmed up in the all-party report drafted by the Liberal peer, Lord Beveridge. It was another Liberal, John Maynard Keynes, who gifted Labour what it perceived to be a certain economic formula for successfully underwriting Beveridge’s “Welfare State”.
It fell to Attlee’s Labour government in the aftermath of the war to introduce the legislation establishing the various schemes of social welfare agreed by the wartime coalition government.  In each instance the case for the various reforms was argued on the logic of capitalist efficiency and control. Indeed, rather than presenting a case for the abolition of poverty, the new schemes of social welfare were effectively structured to deal with the in-built and permanent nature of poverty within capitalism.

That said, it would be churlish not to recognise the merit in, for example, the National Health Service.  True, it was presented as, and intended to be, more efficient than the myriad disorganised group and panel schemes then prevailing but, at the outset especially, when it provided wholly free health care, it undoubtedly proved a boon to many people. Ironically, it was the Labour Party that soon after the establishment of the NHS first legislated for prescription charges. The service has undergone constant erosion and its decline would support the argument that capitalism cannot sustain meaningful reform.

Today, the excitement, the fervour and the hope that the early Labour Party engendered has gone and there can be no challenge to the assertion that it is a party of capitalism.  Factually, Labour’s claim to the support of the working class is based, and can only be based, on the argument that they run the affairs of capitalism better than their opponents.  That may or may not be true but it is a far cry from the early argument that the problems of society arose from the nature of its economic system and not the manner of running that system.

In fact ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ are today just points on the administrative spectrum of capitalism, and while the lot of the working class has advanced materially, due to factors unconnected with the policies of the Left, real poverty, mere want and growing insecurity and fear still plague the land.  The rotten values of “yours” and “mine” have advanced social alienation and fuelled crime and violence while the world outside has become immeasurably more frightening and hostile to the values that motivated many in the early Labour Party. The Labour Party has become a fertile field for careerists many of whom share the contempt of their competitor colleagues in the Tory Party and ‘the business community’ for the working class, the real wealth-producers.

And what contribution has Old Labour and the Left in general to the dilemma of a working class robbed now of even hope?  Well… get back to the policies of Old Labour. But the problems of today are the logical result of pursuing the notion that capitalism, a system based on the exploitation of the working class, could by means of political alchemy be made to function in the interests of the working class.

One can understand the thinking of the early Labour reformers; they had what they believed was a good theory, but history has now demonstrated that their theory was built more on hope than a knowledge of the real nature of either capitalism or socialism. The so-called extreme Left might agree: Yes, let’s get back to socialism, they will say.  But it is a political conjuring trick for when they set out their stall they simply offer a plethora of the old, failed reforms.  They will talk about socialism but, as though it was a family skeleton, they will not tell you what socialism is.  Not that they know what it is, for just like the liberal Left they would treat with surprised derision Marx’s advice to the working class to remove from its banners the conservative slogan of a “fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay” and inscribe instead “Abolition of the wages system!”.

Should the Left consider socialism, rather than arguing that reform of some aspect of capitalism will prove attractive to the working class and is worthy of struggle? If so, then how good is the argument for promoting socialism?  Well, for a start, it is the only system of social organisation that can underwrite real democracy; it is the only means by which poverty in all its aspects, from mere want to Third World syndrome, can be banished; it is the only way by  which we can eliminate those awful conflicts of interest that necessitate armaments and cause wars; it is a compelling and urgent answer  to capitalism’s appalling destruction of the ecosphere. 

Finally, it can be the restoration of hope to a sick, visionless humanity and a challenge to the terrifying threat of bourgeois liberal “philosophers” who saw in the squalid demise of authoritarian state-capitalism in Eastern Europe the end of history and the spectre of eternal capitalism.  

Surely that is enough to gain genuine socialism a hearing, to open debate and start the process of consideration.

Richard Montague

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