Book Review from the March 2018 issue of the Socialist Standard
'A Party With Socialists In It. A History of the Labour Left'. By Simon Hannah. (Pluto Press. 2018. 250 pages)
It was Tony Benn who wrote that ‘the Labour Party has never been a socialist party, though there have always been socialists in it’ which Hannah has taken as the title of his book. The first part is true but the second depends on what you mean by ‘socialist’.
When it was founded in 1900 as the Labour Representation Committee, the Labour Party was to be a group of MPs, separate from the Liberals and Tories, to press for legislation in favour of trade unions and their members and didn't actually become the Labour Party, as a parliamentary group, until it had some MPs elected in the 1906 general election. It didn’t even claim to be socialist. However, one of its constituent parts, the Independent Labour Party (ILP) that had been founded in 1893, did. In 1918 the Labour Party adopted a new constitution which included the famous Clause IV, which committed it (on paper and in the very long-term) to full-scale nationalisation; it also allowed individuals to join directly rather than via the ILP or the Fabian Society, which marginalised the ILP which eventually, in 1932, broke away and so was no longer 'in' the Labour Party.
Hannah’s history is that of the ILP up to 1932 (which he sees though rose-tinted spectacles), the Red Clydesiders, Sir Stafford Cripps and the Socialist League, Bevan and the Bevanites, Benn and the Bennites, and, now, Corbyn and the Corbynistas.
But were they socialists? They certainly considered themselves to be but understood socialism as the implementation of Clause IV. As this envisaged the nationalisation of ‘the means of exchange’, it implied the continuation of production for the market and the wages system; in effect state capitalism. Basically, they were leftwing reformists.
Hannah himself, an ex-Trotskyist, sees socialism as nationalisation under workers’ control but this is no way forward as, given production for the market, workers would be forced to run their industry on capitalist lines. He describes Benn’s politics as ‘greater democracy, greater worker involvement in industry, and a more accountable political class’ and Corbyn’s as ‘anti-neoliberal without being anti-capitalist.’ Both true.