The Cooking the Books Column from the July 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard
Commenting on multi-millionaire and Tory backwoodsman Adrian Beecroft’s description of LibDem Cabinet Minister Vince Cable as a “socialist”for criticising his proposal to make it easier for employers to sack workers, Owen Jones asked “How did ‘socialist’ turn into an insult?”(I newspaper, 25 May).
It’s a question we ourselves have often asked. Our answer has been that it’s because the word became associated with the Labour Party and the state capitalist dictatorship in the old USSR.
Although we consistently opposed both, we were unable to keep to the fore the original meaning of ‘socialism’ as a co-operative commonwealth based on the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production, with production for use, not the market or profit, and the end of having to work for wages. Both Labour and the Russian dictatorship failed and people were encouraged to see this as the failure of socialism.
The early Labour Party’s claim was that, by a series of nationalisations and social reforms, a Labour government would be able to gradually improve workers’ living standards and progress towards socialism (which some of them understood in the same, original sense as us). It didn’t work out that way. In office, Labour had to govern capitalism on capitalism’s terms, as a profit-making system. This inevitably brought them into conflict with workers and to introduce wage restraint and restrictions on union activity.
The post-war Labour government did nationalise coal, the railways, gas, water and electricity but mainly in order to ensure that the rest of private industry got these provided in a more efficient (and subsidised) way. It also introduced a nation-wide social insurance system and health service, once again mainly to benefit employers by providing them with a relatively healthy and more productive workforce.
Although working conditions in the industries that were nationalised did improve, the basic conflict of interest between workers and employers that is built-in to capitalism continued, and so, therefore, did strikes. An economic crisis (and the need to finance a war in Korea) forced the post-war Labour government itself to begin the whittling away of some of the social reforms it had introduced. The same happened with the Labour governments of the 1960s and 1970s.
Instead of Labour gradually transforming capitalism, it was capitalism that gradually transformed Labour, from a party that talked of socialism even if only as a vague and long-term aspiration into an alternative management team for British Capitalism plc.
Jones noted that the word ‘socialism’“hasn’t made an appearance in a Labour manifesto since 1987.”But he doesn’t want to return to the original meaning but only to what the Labour Party used to mean by it years ago. “If socialists really were running the show in Britain”, he wrote, the banks “would be taken under genuine democratic control, forcing them to operate in the interests of society as a whole”; the rich would be forced to pay more tax; the railways and energy companies would be taken into “social ownership”and run by workers and consumers; more social housing would be built, and a “living wage”introduced.
This is Old Labour stuff –the dream of a democratically-run wages and profits system (which, ironically, Vince Cable shared when he was a Labour councillor in Glasgow in the 1970s before following the Gang of Four into the SDP and then the Liberals).
There was nothing wrong with the sentiment behind this of wanting to provide workers with a decent and improving standard of living. It’s just that, given capitalism, this is not possible. Capitalism simply cannot be made to work in the interest of workers.