From International Socialism (1st series), No.52, July-september 1972, pp.9-15.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
The Labour Party constitutes part of The Establishment. Indeed, it resembles the Church of England. The Reverend Harold Wilson’s sermons, delivered to aged and half-empty congregations, are not treated seriously any longer. Nevertheless, despite the lack of enthusiasm or active commitment, millions of people at least give it formal allegiance. Just as when asked their religion, they apathetically reply ‘C of E’, so they traipse to the polling stations to vote Labour. Behind this single act lies a deeply ingrained outlook, an important part of the working class tradition, that creates an obstacle to progress towards socialism in Britain.
Social democracy’s strength lies not in organisation but attitude. The Labour leaders are incapable of mobilising millions of people behind Transport House banners, barring the road to revolutionary advance. But they can rely, however, on a widely held attitude that retards the rate of revolutionary advance. The widespread belief in preserving constitutional niceties, of going through the proper channels, and of leaving things to Parliament, dissipates a lot of energy. It cushions the blows directed at the ruling class.
The laws of capitalism are designed to facilitate the smooth-running of capitalism. To keep within the limits they impose precludes effective struggle. It means, for instance, accepting the Industrial Relations Bill and making the best of it. Similarly with the Tory ‘Fair’ Rents Bill – tenants should stoically pay the increases because it is the holy writ of Parliament. But such docility gains its own reward: besides leading to a deterioration in working class wages and conditions, the very ease with which the new laws gain acceptance tempts the Tories to introduce an even more vicious legislation. Indeed, the only way to fight these measures is to practise widespread illegality, to make the laws inoperable. If trade unionists went on a one-day general strike every time the Industrial Relations court imposed a fine, then the Tory government would have to think again. To collect, say, a £50,000 fine from the Transport & General would mean employers being ‘fined’ £150 million, the cost of a day’s lost production.
But Labour leaders deplore such tactics. James Callaghan said there must be no defiance of the law; everything should be left to Parliament to decide. In making these remarks, he reveals another flaw of social democracy: it is not merely that the veneration of the law prevents effective struggle but also the belief in the crucial importance of Parliament prevents effective organisation. It is an essentially elitist approach. Instead of doing things for yourself, you look to others to do them for you. Rather than rely on the strength of your own organisation, you look to some self-proclaimed saviour in the House of Commons to improve your lot. Influencing parliamentary decision-making, not perfecting grass-root organisation, becomes number one priority.
This, however, flies in the face of historical experience. Capitalism is not a charitable institution. It does not give things away. Every gain workers have secured has been won through strength of organisation and ability to struggle. To suggest anything other is to spread illusions – and this is precisely what social democrats try to do.
We can say, therefore, that the first and most serious charge against Harold Wilson & Co. is that, by their constitutional and elitist approach, they impede the workers’ struggle at the present time, making it more difficult to repulse the employers’ offensive. To this indictment can be added two further charges: first, the failure of successive Labour governments to overthrow capitalism and, second, the failure of the last Labour government even to make modest improvements to the workers’ lot.
Before examining these two points, it is worthwhile looking at the nature of reformism. As the term is usually used (or misused), reformism is synonymous with social democracy. But there is nothing intrinsically socialist or even working class about reformism. One has only to think for a moment about other countries: many measures similar to those introduced by the Attlee administration were brought in by Adenauer’s Christian Democrats in Germany while in France, under the Fourth Republic, when right-centre governments predominated, family allowances and other benefits much higher than those in Britain were granted. So it would be wrong to think that Labour politicians have a monopoly of reformist activity. Indeed, an examination of what has happened in Britain merely confirms this fact. The three great periods of reforms – post-1867, 1906-1914 and 1945-51 – have each been associated with different political parties. In the first of these the Tories, led by Disraeli, wished to tame the newly enfranchised working class, to secure its adherence to traditional capitalist politics. The second was the Liberals’ response to the mounting industrial tension and social unrest that characterised the period before the First World War. The third came when Labour had the task in 1945 of making the transition from war to peace while trying to avoid the harmful, and potentially revolutionary, social clashes that happened after 1918. People had to be granted crumbs to keep them quiet.
Reform can, therefore, be viewed as a response of behalf of the ruling class to pressure from below. It is essentially conservative, an attempt to buttress the existing class structure by making minor concessions. From their standpoint, reform is preferable to revolution. As Tsar Alexander II pointed out when he abolished serfdom in Russia in 1857, ‘Better that the reform should come from above than wait until serfdom is abolished from below.’ Similarly, Northern Ireland illustrates the same point today. The regime has existed there for 50 years. During which time, there has been a police state, discrimination against the Catholics, bad housing, unemployment, etc. But during those fifty years, successive Tory and Labour governments have done nothing to improve the situation. It is only after mass action imperilled the very existence’ of the state that talk of reforms came from politicians’ lips. Reform is the reply to the threat of revolution.
But it is not merely that. The granting of concessions acts as a lubricant, making the system run more smoothly. They help to foster illusions about the state. Instead of seeing its real role, that of preserving capitalist exploitation, it is seen in a more favourable light. People think of the benefits they derive from the state rather than the payments they make to it. Even if they still happen to be disconsolate, they are fed with expectations that things will improve – ‘a better tomorrow’ was the slogan of Edward Heath at the 1970 general election. Labour would also have the electorate believe that it would secure them ‘a better tomorrow’. But while illusory in both cases, they do help to stimulate expectations about the future.
In many respects, it makes the capitalist state analogous to a one-armed bandit. Obviously fruit machines operate to redistribute wealth, from the pockets of the suckers who use them to the businessmen who own them. But this object would not be accomplished if the player lost every time. That would make the function of fruit machines transparently clear. People would not use them, and their owners’ profits would go down. In other words, it pays the capitalist to occasionally lose. Similarly, it pays the capitalist state to appear to be generous since this conceals the true nature of its being.
Often reforms, besides creating goodwill, have a hidden bonus for the capitalist class. Improvements to the educational system can be construed as a victory for the workers. On the other hand, they provide employers with a labour force better able to cope with modern scientific and technical problems. Likewise the National Health Service, introduced by Aneurin Bevan in 1948, was popularly regarded as a great boon for the working man. But it also helped employers, who have known for a long time that personnel who are healthy are also more productive.
A further consequence of reform is that it creates a political climate that is conducive to stability. Politicians, all accepting the fundamental principles of capitalist society, compete among themselves on how to improve running it. This is useful from the standpoint of the system.  It is infinitely better than allowing the pressure of discontent to build up until it explodes with revolutionary force.
From the foregoing, the reader might wrongly conclude that the introduction of reforms, at all times and in all places, has a reactionary effect. It hinders the struggle for socialism. But this overlooks the fact that each piece of legislation has a cost. Consequently, it is likely to squeeze profit margins and damage the competitiveness of the economy. Faced with an angry proletariat, the ruling class may wish to assuage it by granting reforms but this is not always feasible. Indeed, there is an interaction of forces: the demands of the people conflict with the system’s ability to meet them. In deteriorating economic conditions, when capitalism no longer can concede reforms, the struggle for reforms is transformed into a revolutionary struggle – one that can only be won by smashing the system. In Russia the Bolsheviks came to power because the Provisional government could not meet three modest demands – the clamour for peace, land and bread.
To the extent that it becomes impossible for the state to meet people’s strivings for social improvements, the path is opened to revolutionary organisations. Politicians like Heath and Wilson, through their failure to fulfil their election pledges, sow the seeds of doubt in the parliamentary system. It is their own inadequacy that creates the conditions for International Socialism to grow. Workers do not turn to revolution light-heartedly, in the mood that one would go for a picnic; for revolution is an extremely arduous and exacting process, involving a lot of hardship and sacrifice. Therefore, it is only after other possibilities have been exhausted, once it has become clear that in terms of the old society problems are insoluble, that it is placed on the agenda of history.
An analysis of the Wilson administration reveals that, in its six years in office, it did not solve these basic problems. Indeed, during that time the situation was exacerbated. Far from bringing in reforms, as the Attlee administration (1945-51) did, the tendency under Wilson was in the opposite direction. Let me make a few comparisons:
- Unemployment. An achievement of the Attlee government, an important reason for its initial popularity, was that it was the first government that secured full employment in peacetime. Harold Wilson, on the other hand, was in office while the unemployment figure crept up to 700,000. In the New Statesman, R.H.S. Crossman, defending the Labour government, stated that there was only a 9 per cent rise during the last year of the Wilson administration as against a 15 per cent one in Edward Heath’s first year. 
- The National Health Service. In 1948, when the NHS started, the British economy was sufficiently strong to operate it without patients making payments. Subsequently, this great principle was eroded away. But in 1964, Labour returned to office pledged to restore the completely free service. However, this promise was never kept. Charges were even increased. In other words, the Labour government (1964-70) did not attain the standards reached by its predecessor.
- Anti-union legislation. The Attlee administration repealed the 1927 Trades Disputes Act, which made it illegal for trade unions to call a general strike. It did, however, continue with some of the wartime emergency legislation and used it against militants. However, in 1951, thanks to a dock strike that spread from Merseyside to London, the Labour government took all the anti-union measures off the statute book. This is in marked contrast to the conduct of Wilson’s government, which strove to introduce an anti-union bill, 25 out of whose 29 provisions are included in the Tory government’s Industrial Relations Bill.
- Interest rates. Under the Attlee government, interest rates were generally low. Indeed, for a time, during the ‘cheap money’ policy of Dr. Dalton, bank rate was as low as 2.5 per cent. This meant it was relatively easy for local authorities to borrow money for housing and other social needs. Moneylenders did not do so well. But, gradually, interest rates rose until, by the time the Wilson government went out of office, a £5,000 council house ultimately cost £29,270 once all the interest repayments had been made.
It would, of course, be possible to go on, detailing other aspects of the last Labour government’s record and showing that its performance was far worse than that of its predecessor. This was not because Wilson’s cabinet was less talented than that of Clem Attlee. Nor is there any reason to believe that their resolve was less. Rather the crucial difference was not in personal qualities or policies but in the state of the economy.
British capitalism’s decline had become more pronounced and consequently its ability to grant concessions had diminished. Indeed, under Wilson’s administration, far from seeing improvements placed on the statute book, the vehicle was put in reverse gear. We witnessed Labour reformism without reforms – indeed with attacks on the basic rights of British workers.
Some political tendencies, such as the Tribune MPs and the Communist Party, would accept some of these criticisms of the last Labour government. They would admit its performance was disappointing. Nevertheless, they argue that this does not necessarily mean that all attempts to use the parliamentary machine must necessarily fail. They visualise the transformation of society – in fact, the creation of socialism -coming through legislative enactments. For this to happen, three necessary conditions must exist. They are:
- First, that the Labour left (the CP assisted by other left-wing forces) capture control of the Labour Party.
- Second, the Labour Party is transformed into a revolutionary party.
- Third, Parliament is sufficiently adaptable to become the instrument of revolutionary change as well as sufficiently powerful to prevent any attempts to sabotage the change.
Let us analyse these three conditions in turn, starting with the first. An examination of the Labour left shows that at no time in its history has it been as weak, both in political credibility and policy, as it is today. An analysis of it over the past fifty years reveals that the Labour left has become increasingly feeble. You have only got to compare the Michael Foots of today with the Jimmy Maxtons of yesterday to realise how precipitous the decline has been. Jimmy Maxton had been a close companion of John Maclean. He took a prominent part in the fierce industrial battles that occurred during and immediately after the First World War. Like the other ‘wild men on the Clyde’, elected at the 1922 general election, he was not only far nearer to a revolutionary position than the Labour pink MPs of today, but also had won standing as a working class leader as a result of leading workers in struggle. These were men who represented something. Thousands turned up at Glasgow station to cheer them off. And when they arrived in London, they met, amongst the other MPs, men like George Lansbury, recently out of his prison clothes, having led Poplar Council in its defiance of the law. 
One Labour MP of the time, John Paton, described the atmosphere at the 1922 general election, which made it unique: ‘Never again in subsequent elections was enthusiasm to rise to this height or possess quite this intense quality. It was an emotional outpouring expressing the sudden release of a new hope.  Another MP, David Kirkwood, former convenor of Parkhead forge, confirms this view in his autobiography: ‘We were going to do big things. The people believed that. We believed that. At our onslaught, the grinding poverty which existed in the midst of plenty was to be wiped out. We were going to scare away the grim spectre of unemployment which stands grinning behind the chair of every artisan. We believedit could be done ... Alas, that we were able to do so little!’ 
It is impossible not to agree with Kirkwood’s verdict. The ‘wild men of the Clyde’ accomplished very little. Granted Jimmy Maxton and a few others remained reasonably true to their socialist principles, expressing them, however, with less and less effect as the years went by. But others like Wheatley and Shinwell, sold out by accepting government posts. And, moreover the Clydesiders as a group were responsible for nominating Ramsay MacDonald as party leader. The most powerful, the most promising Labour left ever, produced at a time when large numbers of people had faith in the efficacy of Parliament, failed dismally.
The Labour left on the Twenties was much more impressive than that that emerged in the early Thirties, led by Attlee and Cripps, which never gained mass working class support. Even so, the Labour left’s policy in the thirties was very much better than the Tribune MPs now. Attlee and Cripps proclaimed:
‘In our view it is impossible to frame a socialist policy of any kind to satisfy the capitalist. An attempt to do so will inevitably lead the party into a position of being distrusted by its followers and not satisfying others.’ 
Consequently, they concluded, quite logically, that they had to spell out in detail what they stood for:
‘We do not want to get in by a kind of confidence trick saying, "We are very good boys, and we shall not do anything drastic unless you give us power and we will do it." If we are to rally the whole Country, we have to tell them that those things have to be forced.’ 
Hence Attlee and Cripps held mass meetings to explain their socialist policy. ‘Everywhere I go I find reviving enthusiasm and great meetings,’ Clem Attlee wrote in a letter to his brother. ‘George, Stafford and I endeavour to give them the pure milk of the word and no blooming gradualism and palliatives.’ 
Attlee visualises a Labour government carrying out extensive nationalisation: ‘The moment to strike at capitalism is the moment when the Government is freshly elected and assured of its support. The blow struck must be a fatal one and not merely designed to wound and turn a sullen and obstructive opponent into an active and deadly enemy.’  To accomplish this task, the Labour government must be ‘armed with emergency powers for taking land and buildings without waiting for elaborate inquiries as to compensation, etc.’  In a vague way, Attlee even approached the concept of a revolutionary party. He saw this as the role of the Socialist League:
‘The most urgent job of every socialist now is to see that in his own town at any rate there is ready a group of people ... who can trust one another, and who are trusted by the rank and file, people who have made it their business to see what a socialist government would require in their district, and to find out how it could be done. That is what the Socialist League is setting out to do – to create advance guards of the revolution, and to create them now. For when the revolution comes it will be too late.’ 
Attlee went as far as to suggest they ‘should train people to take over the commanding positions in the army and navy in the event of a revolution.’  It would be interesting to challenge the Michael Foots and Eric Heffers to make public statements at the present time which were as left as Attlee’s of forty years ago. Indeed, it is a sympton of the Tribune MPs’ decline – of their political degeneration – that Clem Attlee appears a rabid revolutionary by comparison. But really it would be pointless trying to prod them into making such utterances: socialist words without socialist deeds are meaningless. Sir Stafford Cripps, the scourger of the financiers in the Thirties, became a tool of the financiers in the Forties. As Chancellor of the Exchequer, he imposed a wage freeze on the workers while prices and profits continued to rise. Similarly, Clem Attlee, who talked of a Labour government delivering a fatal blow to capitalism immediately it attained office, did nothing of the kind when he became prime minister. Rather he took Britain into NATO, a military alliance to defend capitalism, and consequently had to increase arms expenditure at the expense of social services.
The political evolution of Attlee and Cripps is a pattern followed by many Labour politicians. They initially go through a left-wing phase, thereby acquiring popularity and support from the rank-and-file, before subsequently moving rapidly to the right. Significantly, the Attlee administration’s anti-working class measures led to the emergence of the Bevanites, a left opposition that contained such notable socialists as Harold Wilson, Anthony Greenwood, Barbara Castle and R.H.S. Crossman! Yet, in many ways, the Bevanites’ credentials to be regarded as a Labour left have to be taken more seriously than those of Michael Foot and his friends today.
At the height of the controversy over re-armament, Aneurin Bevan declared that,
‘The polarisation of British political life is not therefore as between Labour and Tory. The formal struggle will be expressed in those terms. But the real struggle is for the soul of the Labour Party.’ 
Because they felt this to be so, Bevanite MPs took the struggle into the constituencies, holding Tribune brain trusts, which were described as ‘the biggest, most continuous and widespread propaganda effort ever conducted within the Labour Movement.’  You have only to compare this with the situation in recent years to see how the Labour left has atrophied. Whereas Aneurin Bevan saw the right-left dispute within the Labour Party as the storm-centre of British politics, Michael Foot did what he could to pour oil on troubled waters and lessen the criticism of the Wilson administration that came from the rank-and-file:
‘If the Government were torn to pieces by the actions of the Left within the party, the consequences would be appalling. The Labour Movement would be sundered for generations to come into sectarian fragments.’ 
Since his basic message to the rank-and-file was to cool it, to accept without demuring too much the reactionary measures of Wilson’s government, there was no possibility of the parliamentary Left mounting a nationwide protest campaign. Consequently, whereas there were as many as eight Tribune brain trusts held a week up and down the country in the early fifties, in recent years Tribune has usually confined itself to hold a mere three meetings a year – one at the Labour Party conference, another at the TUC and the third at the Young Socialists’ conference. All thoughts of conducting a serious and concerted campaign among the working class has evaporated; Because of this failure to make any impact – to differentiate themselves in the eyes of the working class from the reactionary Labour leaders – at general elections they have fared no better or worse than other Labour candidates. This is in marked contrast to the position in 1951. Then, Bevanites quite clearly attacked Attlee, made it understood to the electorate that they opposed the arms burden and the ensuing welfare cuts. As a consequence, there was a considerable difference between their performance and others. Tribune pointed out that had other Labour candidates done as well as the Bevanite ones, then no Tory government would have been returned. 
Besides failing to distinguish themselves in any serious sense from the Labour right-wing leadership, the Tribune group also did damage by spreading illusions about what could be expected from Wilson’s administration. It even spread the grotesque idea that the government was socialist! In euphoria after Labour victory at the 1964 general election, Tribune had as its masthead ‘The Paper that speaks for 12,205,576 voters’. It noted with pride that many of its former contributors were now ministers and proclaimed in a headline, ‘Tribune takes over from Eton in the Cabinet’. With such dynamic leadership, how could anyone doubt that ‘the job of building a new Britain has begun’? Richard Clements, Tribune‘s editor, explained,
‘There are differences between the policy of this paper and the views which Mr. Wilson puts forward. But they are of emphasis rather than of principle.’ 
Members of Parliament who previously had flirted with revolutionary organisations added to the chorus of those saying it was vital to support Mr. Wilson. Stan Newens said, ‘The new government has made a start which calls for the support of every socialist.’ He went on to say how ‘delighted’ he was to see the government had begun so well: ‘The fact that such a bold beginning has been made should give heart to us all.  Similarly, Eric Heffer opined:
‘Obviously for some of us the programme does not go far enough, for others it undoubtedly goes too far. But as Michael Foot has said, we all accepted it and we cannot expect more, but neither should we accept less.’ 
In the articles referred to by Heffer, Michael Foot had written:
‘Like it or not, the Labour Party programme on which we fought the election was one in which we envisaged working a mixed economy in a country involved in the western alliance and in the predominantly capitalist western world. The operation is extremely difficult. But, as Jimmy Maxton once said, if we thought we couldn’t ride two horses we should never have joined the bloody circus.’ 
While Foot apparently expected fatalistic acceptance of the electoral programme from the rank-and-file, he never went on to discuss what would be the effect on the working class of merely maintaining the existing economic system. It seems that he is unaware of the fact that capitalism, by its very nature, is a system that runs in the interests of capital and consequently against those of labour. Perhaps he should have read the truths uttered by Attlee thirty years before – that a Labour government which was simply content to administer capitalism would ‘inevitably lead the party into a position of being distrusted by its followers and not satisfying others’, that the least attempt to introduce progressive measures would turn ‘a sullen and obstructive opponent into an active and deadly enemy.’
But Michael Foot’s powers of understanding have always been weak, and added proof of this came after Wilson’s victory at the 1966 general election. Along with many of his colleagues, he completely misread the significance of this event. Tribune welcomed the result with the banner headline: ‘Socialism is Right back on the Agenda’.  The following week it said, ‘Labour’s left has played no small part in securing the victory. The argument now is about the implementation of Socialism in Britain.’ This was echoed by Eric Heffer: ‘It is now possible for the Labour Government with its substantial parliamentary majority to really begin to transform society by democratic parliamentary means; if Labour fails to do this, the opportunity will not be presented again for a long time to come.’  Heffer continued, ‘I am not filled with pessimism’.
It might be worthwhile to ask why the rosy expectations of Heffer and Tribune came to naught. How was it that Wilson’s government, returned in 1966 with a commanding parliamentary majority, was so reactionary? The simple answer lies in the fact that, contrary to the illusions of left Labour MPs, important political issues are not determined by the number of parliamentary seats. Rather it is the relative strength of the various classes in society that decides the outcome. Obviously, in a capitalism system it is the capitalist class that is the strongest, and therefore this class was in a position to impose its will. It was able to make the Labour government forget the promises it made at the 1966 election: runs on the pound, threats to put new factories in other countries, and a variety of other forms of pressure were used. As Peter Shore, an ex-Labour minister, frankly pointed out in his book, Entitled to Know, the City was prepared to ‘veto Government decisions that it disliked.’
Therefore, the failure of the Labour left – its complete disintegration at the present time – can be attributed its inability to see where the main battle lies. In attempts to mobilise forces for the parliamentary struggle which, at the very most, is a side-show. It does not relate itself to the crucial struggle which lies in the creation of rank-and-file organisations in industry and elsewhwere as well as the building of a revolutionary party. The fact that it does not relate itself to these urgent problems means that increasingly the Labour left is seen as an irrelevancy. In size, cohesion and policy, it has never been as weak as it is today. Given the trend over the past fifty years, there is not the remotest chance of it capturing control of the Labour Party for socialist policies. Thus the first of the three conditions for destroying capitalism by parliamentary means does not exist nor is it ever likely to exist.
Obviously, the derelict state of the Labour left must be borne in mind when we turn to consider the second condition – that is, whether the Labour Party can transform itself into a party of social revolution. For this to happen, it would have to be an active and vigorous organisation, where socialist ideas were seriously discussed. But here, again, the trend is in the opposite direction. When the years 1966-9 are compared to those of 1951-5, Labour lost 212,000 members.  Probably this loss in quantitative terms is not as grave as the qualitative change: after the exodus, it is the aged and the middle class who tend to remain. This is even true in a proletarian citadel like Liverpool, as Barry Hindess’s interesting study reveals. His research showed that Labour Party membership was greater in middle class areas than in working class areas; that in a number of working class districts ward parties had, since 1965, stopped functioning; and, most significant of all, ‘there were no unskilled workers attending meetings in any of the wards studied.’  In other words, Labour’s links with the working class at grass-root level were becoming more tenuous.
This, of course, has had profound repercussions. Dwindling membership resulted in less activity. Whereas in the early fifties, any political dispute within the working class found its most important and direct expression within the Labour Party, now this is no longer the case. When the Bevanites argued against re-armament, the Labour Party was the main battleground. When, in 1958, the campaign over CND began, it was begun outside the Labour Party, yet was brought within the ranks and there was the stormy Scarborough conference. But now, on burning issues of the present day, so few people are active within the party that there can be few debates of any consequence and the devaluation of the annual conference means that it really does not matter what decisions it takes. By implication, Labour activists accept this verdict: a third of constituency parties did not even bother to send delegates to the annual conference. 
Those that did make the effort to send delegates, it would appear, tended to be the more reactionary local parties. This can be seen from the fact that there was a swing to the right in the elections to the National Executive Committee. Topping the poll was Barbara ‘In Place of Strife‘ Castle, with Wedgwood ‘UCS’ Benn and H-Bomb Healey also being elected. It is interesting to compare these results with those at the first conference after the Attlee government lost power. In those days, the left was active and vigorous. At the 1952 Morecambe conference, it swept the board, taking all seven constituency party seats on the National Executive and knocking off two former ministers – Morrison and Dalton -who had been associated with the reactionary policies pursued. What is even more significant about the Labour Party 1970 annual conference is the failure of there to be any serious revolt by delegates against the election programme that contributed to defeat. With disarming frankness, both Harold Wilson and Richard Cossman admitted that it was the first election they had participated in where Labour’s programme had not contained any proposed reforms. Michael Foot went even further, describing it as a ‘parody of a party manifesto, the least creditable in the party’s history’. Yet, the rank-and-file -the few that remains of them – stayed quiet and did nothing to stop the issuing of a similar monstrosity at the next general election.
The disenchantment with the Labour Party has so far manifested itself in abstentionism. Good socialists have become disillusioned and dropped out of political activity. Similarly, the electorate have voted with their feet – by refusing to move them from the hearth-rug on polling day. At each general election, a smaller percentage go to vote. While the electorate has increased since 1951 by six million – including many young people because the voting age has been reduced from 21 to 18 – nevertheless, at the 1970 general election, Labour gained 1,800,000 votes fewer than it did in 1951.
This opting out of traditional-type politics shows there is a considerable potential for a revolutionary organisation. It also is indicative of the decline of the Labour Party as an effective political force. No longer has it the same roots in the working class or does its ideology appear so plausible. To think that it could be transformed so that Labour brought in socialism by parliamentary means, is ludicrous.
With the second condition unfulfilled, we can turn to the third, and final, one – whether socialism can be achieved by parliamentary means. In a sense, this question is redundant since, as we have seen, the other two conditions do not exist: the Labour left is on its knees and there is no chance of the Labour Party being transformed into the type of organisation required to introduce socialism. But if, for the sake of argument, we do consider it, we will see that Parliament could only be the instrument for creating a new society if the following things appertained:
- that Parliament was the centre of the decision-making process;
- that edicts of Parliament were honoured;
- and that the state apparatus – army, police, etc. – would be prepared to deal with persons who used force or sabotaged the introduction of socialism.
None of these three points is valid. It is true that in the 17th century Parliament was the instrument of the rising capitalist class. Afterwards, it remained an important organ for moulding state policy. But in the 20th century, with the development of monopolies and their intimate association with the state, Parliament has lost much of its power. It has almost become an irrelevance. Under contemporary capitalism, the type of question that arises is not amenable to parliamentary solution. Let me give an example: in 1965 the Labour government drew up its National Plan, laying out how it wished the economy to develop during the next five years. This raised extremely important issues about the allocation of resources. But no Labour MPs were consulted in the drawing up of the document. And it is difficult to see how they could be. For what the government wanted to determine was how much expansion could be reasonably expected by 1970 of the chemical industry, motor industry, etc. No Member of Parliament had the necessary specialised knowledge or could speak for an industry. But businessmen like Lord Stokes and Lord Kearton could. It was with such representatives that the National Plan was compiled; the first thing Labour MPs knew of ‘their’ plan was when it was shown to them on the morning of publication.
This is not an isolated incident. Industrial units have now grown so big that the consequences of their actions have national repercussions. The state cannot be indifferent to their welfare, and, as a result, a close liaison has developed between businessmen , and Whitehall that by-passes Parliament completely. While it is valuable, from the capitalists’ standpoint, to retain the facade of Parliament – it gives proceedings an air of propriety and helps to conceal the extent to which industrialists dominate the state – there can be no question of it exercising any real power. Therefore, even were it possible to gain control of Parliament, it would have no real significance.
In any case, history is strewn with examples of instances where, when some vested interest or other is threatened, constitutional decisions become irrelevant. In 1913, the Curragh mutiny thwarted the will of Parliament to give home rule to the whole of Ireland. In 1951, although a Labour government was elected pledged to nationalise the steel industry and Parliament passed the measure, industrialists still continued to sabotage the decision.  In 1953, the people of British Guiana elected a mildly left government, led by Cheddi Jagan. Immediately, Whitehall suspended the constitution and imprisoned the prime minister. In all these instances, it has merely been a question of decisions being taken which were disliked; none of them threatened the very existence of the capitalist class. And, therefore, is it not reasonable to expect far more opposition, with no holds barred, when it becomes a life-or-death issue for the profit-making system?
The final fallacy in the social democratic approach concerns the nature of the state – the assumption that it will bend in any direction that Parliament happens to push it. This overlooks the fact that, incessantly, the state performs a function. It protects the interests of the employing class as a whole. This view was contested by Fabians, such as Bernard Shaw, who likened the state to an amiable policeman who would carry out any orders given him. But there are not so many amiable policemen around these days! They are more likely to be fighting pickets, spying on left-wingers and beating up demonstrators. Likewise the judiciary and armed forces, far from being impartial, are weapons of class oppression. They would not, therefore, be instruments that could be relied upon to help Parliament to smooth the transition to socialism. Instead of stopping sabotage and violent resistance, they are more likely to actively encourage it – indeed, be a party to it themselves.
It must be said, in conclusion, that there is no parliamentary road to socialism. None of the three conditions necessary for it to be accomplished actually exist or are likely to exist. To the extent that the Communist Party and Tribune peddle the view that a new society can be achieved in this way, they are spreading illusions that divert energy away from the vital struggle. To be a real socialist is to be a revolutionary socialist – there is no other kind.
1. Many writers have suggested that conflict can have a stabilising social effect. For example, Professor Max Gluckman in his Rituals of Rebellion, The Peace in the Feud, etc., shows how this mechanism operates in a primitive society.
2. New Statesman, 21 May 1971.
3. R.K. Middlemas’s book, The Clydesiders, describes the evolution of Jimmy Maxton and the other Scottish left-wing MPs.
4. John Paton, Left Turn, p. 144.
5. David Kirkwood, My Life of Revolt, pp.191-3.
6. C.R. Attlee and Sir Stafford Cripps, Joint Stock Banks. Also Memo, to Labour Party Finance Committee, January 1933.
7. Labour Party Annual Conference Report, 1933, p.162.
8. Attlee to T. Attlee, 7 February 1933. George was George Lansbury.
9. Joint Stock Banks, op.cit.
10. C.R. Attlee, Local Government and Socialist Plan (1933)
11. New Clarion, 17 December 1932, cited by B. Pimlott, The Socialist League: Intellectuals and the Labour Left in the 1930s, Journal of Contemporary History, No.3, 1971.
12. SSIP News, August 1932, cited B. Pimlott, ibid.
13. Tribune, 26 September 1952.
14. R. Hunter, The Road to Brighton Pier, p.86.
15. Tribune, 6 August 1965.
16. Tribune, 2 November 1951.
17. Ibid., 23 October, 6 November, 13 November, 20 November 1964.
18. Ibid., 27 November 1964.
19. Ibid., 17 December 1964.
20. Ibid., 4 December 1964.
21. Ibid., 8 April 1966.
22. Ibid., 6 May 1966. Presumably, if Eric Heffer takes his own remarks seriously, then since the Labour government failed to transform society and then will to chance to get it through parliamentary means ‘for a long time to come’, if he still regards himself as a Socialist Heffer must now favour the only alternative – namely revolutionary means!?
23. Tribune, 4 September 1970
24. Barry Hindess, The Decline of Working Class Politics, pp.57-60
25. Tribune, 9 October 1970
26. John Hughes, Steel Nationalisation & Political Power, New Reasoner, Autumn 1957.
Last updated: 20.3.2008