Book Review from the July 2001 issue of the Socialist Standard
A Strange Eventful History: Democratic Socialism in Britain. By Edmund Dell, Harper Collins, 2000.
Last year's centenary of the foundation of the Labour Representation Committee led to a number of histories of the Labour movement being published. Edmund Dell's was one such, steering away from the more self-congratulatory tone of some of the other offerings. In fact it is an excellent account of the Labour Party written by an ex-Labour MP and Cabinet member.
Clearly describing the limitations of Labour in government, Dell takes the reader through the main political currents of the Labour movement from its inception to New Labour. From the Webbs and Keir Hardie through MacDonald, G.D.H. Cole, R.H. Tawney, Harold Laski, Evan Durbin, Bevin, Attlee, Cripps, Bevan and co., to Gaitskill, Crosland, Wilson, Callaghan, Jenkins, Healey, Benn and Foot, up to Kinnock, Hattersley, Brown, Blair and Mandleson – from Labour's claim to be able to advance to what it called socialism (basically state-managed capitalism) through the control of political power, through to Attlee's partially nationalising government beset by currency concerns, Wilson's liberal and state welfare extending government which was also beset by currency crises and inflation. Callaghan's government which ended Labour's commitment to full employment and attempts at Keynesian economic management in the face of an insupportable borrowing requirement, to Kinnock, Smith and Blair's final rejection of anything that might be considered at odds to the interests of capital. All the way the leaders tried to drag the membership away from any hope that Labour could deliver anything much different from any other party managing capitalism.
Time and failure led the Labour Party:
"further from socialism [state capitalism] and nearer to, and eventually beyond , the acceptance of capitalism ... Starting often from a far left, or even Marxist, orientation, they would move through a series of third ways from left to right, from radical intentions to an acceptance of capitalism modified only by a wish to root-out its greater evils. In many cases even the wish to undertake serious reform disappeared."
Dell tells the story as the critical insider, having gone to the Labour Party, via the “Communist” Party in the 1930s, from business as a manager for ICI and being unconvinced of the core of “Old” Labour political economy:
"My experience of industrial management made me sceptical of the practicality of traditional socialism [state capitalism], and of economic planning. But I regarded the Labour party as the humane party and I did not feel that to remain a member I had to endorse Clause Four which, in any case, seemed no longer an expression of serious Labour intentions."
What exactly Dell did endorse is never clear as, despite persistent attacks on the gap between Labour's aims, ideas and reality and on the personalities of the Labour movement, he remained a member of the Wilson and Callaghan governments and later joined the Liberal-SDP Alliance in the 1980s. Perhaps he stayed a Labour member as a humanitarian or some such but at any rate, very early on in the book, Dell declares that because the Labour Party failed to bring about a socialist society, socialism is also dead:
"As a new form of society, socialism was never a practical project in Britain. Democratic socialism was a mirage, beautiful in the eyes of the beholder, but beyond reach. The hope that by democratic means one form of society, capitalism, could be replaced by another, socialism, proved to be nothing other than one of the more striking human self-deceptions ... the insurmountable obstacle to democratic socialism was democracy, and democracy would have killed socialism's chances in Britain even unassisted by the ineptitude of successive Labour governments in managing the economy."
Nationalisation not socialism ...
It certainly is the case that socialism cannot be arrived at through electing Labour governments. It is also the case that the Labour Party was created only to represent trade unions (never particularly radical) in parliament and that when Labour adopted “socialism” in the form of Clause Four in 1918, it was only support for nationalisation of the means of production (of the so-called “commanding heights” of the economy). Quite what Labour hoped to achieve by bringing industry under state instead of private ownership was not very clear apart from vague and fuzzy ends of “greater equality” and centralised planning these were apparently going to transform capitalism into something that could be controlled by the state (via the myriad economists and managers that had an interest in perpetuating the myth that their expertise was all that was required for growth and prosperity). This, surprisingly enough, didn't happen. On transferring coal, steel, iron, fuel, power and transport to state ownership (with weighty compensation to their previous owners), after 1945 the performance of British industry in the world market still remained declining and working conditions remained mostly unaltered for those employed by the state sector. Indeed, Dell notes:
"Nationalisation was a technocratic act, placing industries under the control of managers thought better capable of running them than their predecessors, though they were often the same persons."
The remarkable blind faith of the Labour Party in nationalisation began its decline from the Attlee government. And this decline in the faith of nationalisation as somehow moving towards a new society is associated, not just by Dell, as being the death of socialism. There are still a few in the Labour Party and in the ranks of the hotchpotch of Trotskyists, Leninists and “Old” Labour in the so-called Socialist Alliance who would still claim that it was not nationalisation that was at fault but Morrisonian nationalisation (that based on the model adopted by Herbert Morrison) and that vast swathes of British industry should still be nationalised. But such methods clearly have nothing to do with socialism. As the Socialist Party has consistently shown since 1904, “public” ownership as favoured by the left of capitalism is simply state ownership and a society with a high percentage of state- compared to privately-owned capital is clearly state-capitalism and does not represent a new form of society. Social (common) ownership means that the means of living (production) are owned by, and its products accessible to, all, with no need for artificial systems of exchange (money). Ownership of the means of production by individual capitalists or by the state makes no difference. Where goods or services are produced for exchange values (for sale) and not for use, where the majority work for wages and a minority (either capitalists or the state) siphon off the surplus value (profit) produced by working people, there is capitalism.
In this sense the declining faith in nationalisation and the Labour Party to effect real change is a positive development for real socialism as the results of Labour in government can be seen for what they are – management of capitalism with a touch of, not always beneficial, reformist tinkering. The problem and challenge is that those in the Labour movement and its surrounds, such as Dell, persist in perpetuating the myth that nationalisation is socialism (the standard dictionary definition) and that as its influence as an attractive option for capitalism declines, so does socialism. The fact is that Labour was never socialist and for that reason it is absurd to claim that socialism is dead while it has never been put before most of the electorate, let alone been a choice in any but few places in a handful of elections. The myth of nationalisation as an answer to the problems of capitalism is more or less dead but socialism as a political movement is yet to come, aided it is hoped by the abandonment of the false hopes of Labourism's palliatives.
... nor is the Welfare State
It may be argued that the state welfare and social security provisions initiated by the Attlee and Wilson governments have benefited the worst-off sections of the working class and that municipal housing and suchlike, often but not always initiated by Labour in local government, have done likewise. This may be the case for the very worst-off who may now find a very basic social security net, albeit one which now forces claimants to take the best job on offer whatever it might be and for whatever pay. But as we all know, there are still many homeless and destitute in every town and city and, according to government statistics (and the government has no interest in increasing the figure) one-third of all children live in conditions of poverty. For most members of the working class very real destitution and poverty still lies just around the corner. Further, low pay and job insecurity, so-called “flexible” working conditions, are on the increase as the power of states to regulate capitalism diminishes – global capital increasingly asserting its power over states who need capital inflow more than capital needs them, thus pushing down the level of basic protection of labour that can be expected to be enforced by any given state.
In Britain the post-1945 welfare state (implemented to streamline existing state welfare rather than creating anything particularly new), the National Health Service, Family Allowances, the Social Security Act, have all come under attack in the last couple of decades, reducing its stated purpose from being a universal security blanket for all to a system of benefits for the worst-off. It is the case that many workers would be better-off without them anyway, given the tendency of the presence of state benefits and allowances to reduce wage levels (indeed Barbara Castle consistently appealed to trade unions in the 1960s and 1970s to take account of the “social wage” that the Labour Party had provided in the form of state social security, pensions and so on, in order to try to inhibit wage demands). The simple case is that systems of social security and welfare do not change the character of capitalism. Poverty hasn't been reformed away and poor housing, ill-health, unemployment and job insecurity remain the very real concerns of most working people. Meanwhile the rich are still getting richer and the failure of Labour's attempts to “redistribute” wealth seem the more amusing for New Labour's being “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich” – if you can't beat them join them, eh Peter?
Dell's account runs from Labour's beginnings, to the apex of its hopes and down the whole slippery slope of disappointed expectations and wasted efforts. The reader at times feels sorry for this bunch of radical optimists, having to chop and change their views and, through experience of their failures, mutate into the sort of political economists (though let's not forget the professional politicians climbing the greasy pole) that the Labour Party once, in the fast fading past, professed to despise. Dell shows very well the limits of a government running capitalism to control the economic and social forces acting upon it. But his conclusion, that socialism is dead, comes from his assumption that socialism is “what Labour governments do” or are prepared to do.
In the Prologue Dell sets out three main currents of thought in what he calls socialism, that is the Labour Party – a vision of “a better society which would replace capitalism and which would be characterised by greater equality, common ownership, and production for use rather than profit”, a belief in democracy, and a managerial element which believed that the expertise of economists could transform capitalism through centralisation and nationalisation. It does not seem to occur to Dell that the managerial strand to Labour's thinking contradicted the socialist vision or democracy, despite its claim to be able to run capitalism better and its professed need for centralisation. But then the Labour Party was always more concerned with getting elected, with what they suppose is “doing something”, than in progressing the cause of socialism.
If they could claim that they could eradicate capitalism's ills without the effort of persuading the majority of the socialist vision and the necessity to act for themselves, then socialism could be arrived at without a great deal of disruption, without the need to “make socialists”, to educate a socialist majority and consciousness. In this way what socialist vision many Labour pioneers had and what desire to advance democracy there may have been, were rapidly pushed to the back of minds of activists by the need to gain political power and enact their economic miracle – much in the way that William Morris, in the 1880s and 90s had suggested it would. Thus, gradually, what emerged from years of reformist efforts was not a slowly evolving socialism but a Labourism which increasingly judged itself by the success of the one thing it could do in government – manage capitalism; all reformist baggage being abandoned in the pursuit of Labour's desire to manage capitalism better than the other lot.