The Passing Show column from the May 1959 issue of the Socialist Standard
The Cart Before The Horse
The Conservative papers are filled with complaints about the money lost by nationalised industries. Do not— they adjure the voters—let the Labour Party in again, or “the dead hand of State control” will descend on more industries. But such complaints miss the mark.
Those who held shares in the coal-mines and the railways faced a bleak prospect in 1945: a prospect of many years without a penny of interest on their holdings, while the coal-mines and the railways recovered from the pre-war years of insufficient capital investment, and from the war itself. But just in time these maidens in distress were rescued from the terrible calamity of having to rub along without the surplus value extracted from the coalminers and the railwaymen. The knight-errant was to some of them perhaps unexpected: the Labour Party. Attlee won the election, formed his government, and put the mines and railways under boards whose duty was to pay out interest each year (in “compensation” for industries which no one in his senses would have thought of buying) amounting to £14 million for the coal shareholders and £40 million for the rail shareholders. (Both these figures have since increased.)
Profit To Be Made
This explains, of course, why the Conservatives, in power for nearly eight years, have left the State ownership of these industries untouched. But some of our private enterprisers are worried at the thought that even in these run-down and out-of-date industries there may yet lurk unexploited pockets of potential gain. An article in the Sunday Express on March 29th concedes that “no financier or industrialist in his right mind" would touch much of the railways. But the writer of the article is not discouraged. “Profit," he says, “has not been entirely eliminated. Even in their present condition, the Transport Commission’s hotels, buffets, docks and ships would make a sound investment . . . They should be the first to be hived off to private enterprise." Later on, he thinks, one of the railway networks themselves should be handed back to a private company. Realising that this suggestion might cause heart-failure to some railway shareholders, he adds hastily that in the first few years, the “free enterprise railway” might need loans from the State, plus a guaranteed “minimum dividend to investors for a period." Later still, he hopes, the rest of the railways “would also become qualified" (i.e. profitable enough) “ for handing back to private enterprise."
In other words, nationalisation is a device to take the risk out of some capitalist industries—for investors. If they allow the industries they own to fall behind the times, through not devoting sufficient funds to re-equipment, the State representing the capitalist class as a whole will step in and modernise their industries for them, paying them a guaranteed minimum of interest while it does so. And then, when the job is done, they can always demand that the industries concerned be “ returned to private enterprise," so as to turn the screw on the workers in them and jump up their dividends once more.
These proceedings are dressed up in a lot of long words and fancy phrases. But, stripped of verbiage, it can be summed up in the formula which has been the motto of the confidence trickster throughout the ages: Heads I win, tails you lose.
According to a book written by Clive Jenkins—Power at the Top (Macgibbon and Kee, 21s)—nationalisation has still more advantages for the capitalists. He says that “the industries may theoretically be owned by the people, but they are largely operated by the representatives of private enterprise in the interests of private enterprise" (Reynolds News. 22-3-59). Mr. Jenkins “shows how the dominant figures" on the State boards, “through interlocking directorships in private firms, are in close business and personal relationships with Britain’s industrial and financial oligarchy." He maintains that the capitalists have made good use of public ownership, and “instances below-cost coal supplied to industry, excessively cheap gas, electricity and freight services, and the way lucrative services have been taken away from nationalised airlines." Aneurin Bevan himself is quoted as saying in 1956—“Perhaps it is time we took the nationalised industries into public ownership?" This, from one of the leaders of the Labour Party, is an extraordinary confession of failure. No doubt he contemplates another variation on the State capitalist theme. But what must be done is to reject the variations and the theme together, and work for a Socialist society.
The Horse's Mouth
When capitalism is at last thrown into the dustbin of history, how many crowded cemeteries will remain as its memorials! You have heard often enough from Socialists about the bloody hands of capitalism, about the wars fought because each capitalist struggles for strategically-placed colonies, for sources of raw materials: but leading supporters of capitalism are themselves often as frank. M. Soustelle, one of the leaders of the movement which overthrew France’s Fourth Republic and placed General de Gaulle in power, says that France must keep Algeria “because he who possesses this strategic springboard controls the Western Mediterranean . . . because Algeria means the Sahara and the Sahara means oil. . . . That is why France must make sure of retaining free access to the Sahara and prevent it from falling under any other than French sovereignty" (Manchester Guardian 19-3-59). In the last four years in Algeria, 1,500 French civilians and 80,000 Algerians have lost their lives in the fighting: but France must stay in Algeria, because of its strategic position and because of its oil. No Socialist could put the facts more damningly than M. Soustelle has done.
Blood is the main by-product of capitalism: Recently a book was published about the Flanders offensive of 1917—In Flanders Fields (Longmans, Green, 25s) by Leon Wolff. One attack went on for weeks, “some positions changing hands eighteen times. When the attack finally petered out, Haig had gained a few hundred yards of shell-torn country, and lost 74,000 British and French casualties " (Everybody's, 28-2-59). The same kind of thing happened day after day: “On September 20, the British line was pushed forward half a mile, and 22,000 men were killed or injured. September 26: 1,000 yards were gained, and 17,000 men lost. October 4: 700 yards gained, and 26,000 men lost. . . . On October 9, the attack was aimed at Passchendaele. . . . Thirteen thousand allied soldiers were killed and injured that day, with no ground gained. Haig wrote in his diary: ‘The results were very successful.'"
In four months, nearly half a million men were killed or injured, to gain about four miles of ground. British capitalism won that war. But what a price in blood the British working class had to pay for its masters’ victory.
But enough of the dark side of our society. Every day the newspapers report some further instance of progress. In The Times (12-2-59) we are told of an improved prison cell. The old ceil was usually about 7 ft by 13 ft. At Everthorpe, a prison opened last year, the cells are 7 ft by 10 ft; now, the new "Butler” cell (which the Home Secretary helped to design) is 7 ft 1 in. by 8 ft 3 in. The Times special correspondent looked it over. “The effect," he said approvingly, “is of greater snugness."
It would be interesting to hear his opinion of the “snugness" of these holes after he had spent, say three years, in one of them.