Monday, June 1, 2015

James Maxton, The Beloved Rebel (1955)

Book Review from the August 1955 issue of the Socialist Standard

"If it were not such a dreadful thing to say of anybody, I should say he meant well"
- The Way of All Flesh

A biography can be written in one of two ways. It may be an "objective" study, an attempt at critically assessing the man, his work and his place in history. On the other hand, it may be a personal piece—an extended obituary notice, wherein the author pays his tribute to the departed. John McNair's James Maxton, the Beloved Rebel (Allen and Unwin, 12s. 6d.) is unashamedly the latter: a chronicle and eulogy of a leader whose faults, if he had them, are allowed no place.

Maxton is presented as a man of deep, passionate sincerity, devoted to the welfare of the poor, earning the affection even of opponents by his integrity and his refusal to compromise. He opposed the two world wars which his Labour colleagues supported; in the first he was imprisoned, in the second he led the tiny I.L.P. group of M.P.s that constituted the permanent opposition to all war measures. Above all, Maxton is shown as a Socialist, aiming to abolish exploitation and misery, working for the unification of all interested parties towards that end.

The book is heavily—perhaps unavoidably—weighted with reference to Maxton's Scottish background: for example, the poverty of the working class seems, at any rate to this writer, to be made almost a regional affair. Nevertheless, it provides an informal, informative history of Labour politics from 1920. The growing Labour movement threw up men like Maxton, protesting against the degradation of the working class. From 1920 to 1939 there was never less than a million unemployed. Towns became derelict; children were born, grew up and married on the dole. "Ten million working men, women and children underfed, underclothed, badly housed at a time which was 'generally regarded as prosperous.'" (J. Kuczynski, A Short History of Labour Conditions in Great Britain).

Maxton's party, the I.L.P., supplied most of the Labour leaders of the "twenties"; of the 192 members in the first Labour Parliament, 120 belonged to the I.L.P. Describing itself—in the New Leader in 1923—as "the militant Socialist wing of the Labour Party" the I.L.P. pressed vigorously a "living wage policy" aimed at "a narrowing of the gulf that separates rich and poor." Mr. McNair makes much of this policy and its advocates, and thereby raises some awkward questions. It may be protested that his is a work of biography, not of political theory, but since much of the praise of Maxton rests on the policies he pursued, facts must be faced.

For the truth is that, however ardently Maxton spoke of Socialism and the abolition of poverty, he and his party had contracted for neither: the "wild men from the Clyde" were as dangerous to the Capitalist system as a pantomime lion to its audience. Leave aside, if you like, the economic aspects—for example, that Socialism has nothing to do with wages; leave that aside and consider merely that many of the men Maxton supported and Mr. McNair praises were avowed upholders of capitalism.

Thus, a whole chapter of the book is given to reporting Maxton's allegation of murder against the Tory Government for the malnutrition deaths of poor people's children, and his subsequent suspension from the House of Commons. But in 1924, when Labour was in office, Ramsay MacDonald—Prime Minister, a leader of the I.L.P.—told the House: "We are not going to diminish industrial capital in order to provide relief." There was no denunciation by Maxton, nor is there any reference by Mr. McNair. Again, John Wheatley is praised for his work on housing as Minister of Health in the first Labour Cabinet. But Wheatley himself made quite clear what his position was. Introducing his housing bill in 1924, he said:
"Labour does not propose to interfere with private enterprise in the building of houses . . . It says to the man with small capital: 'Instead of putting your private capital into a risky investment, lend it to the local authorities at 4½ per cent. Without your having any trouble at all you will get a safe return for your money . . . ' The Labour Party's programme on housing is not a Socialist programme at all."
What is more, he repeated it a week later:
"I notice that the Right Honourable member for Twickenham in criticizing my proposals the other day, said: 'This is real Socialism' . . . The proposals which I am submitting are real Capitalism½an attempt to patch up in the interests of humanity, a capitalist ordered society,"
Maxton's hope was that the Labour Party would become Socialist. In 1929, seeing his lack of an overall majority, he urged that it should attempt sweeping legislation on behalf of the workers; it would fail, of course, but then could turn to the electorate and ask for the mandate it would undoubtedly receive. Perhaps in that one incident is shown what Maxton really failed to perceive. All his life he had hopes in the Labour Party as the agent for emancipating the working class; he never saw that the Labour Party had never set out to that end—or, when he did see it, he hoped he was mistaken.

Maxton lacked, in fact, any clear-cut conception of Socialism, much as he talked about it. In 1928 he debated with the Socialist Party of Great Britain, and expressed his entire agreement with the case Fitzgerald put forward—adding that he appreciated also the Fabians and the Communist Party! He held that Socialism was a question of "human will and human intelligence," to be attained by any variety of possible means.

Indeed, the I.L.P.'s attitude to the Communist Party and to Russia comprises one of the more curious matters in the book. One might set aside Maxton's early co-operation with Gallacher, but McNair will not do so. He writes with undisguised sympathy for the Russian Revolution and the early Bolshevik Government, condemning the British Government's attitude towards it. The I.L.P. today condemns the Russian dictatorship as strongly as everyone else, but Mr. McNair does not explain the difference. Would it be too uncharitable to suggest that the I.L.P. was "taken in" by the illusion of Russian "Socialism" and can deal with its mistakes only by ignoring them?

Maxton's lack of understanding is made the more regrettable by his undoubted sincerity. He was a fine orator, commanding respect and sympathy, but his moral indignation against injustice was never supported by analysis of the real causes of that injustice. Those who followed him were impelled by the same emotional force that drove him: "beloved rebel" is an apt and proud title, but its pleasant emotional sound is the key to Maxton's weakness.

Much has been written in recent times about the "decline" of the Labour movement. The phrase lacks accuracy, since a decline implies a height previously reached. The Labour movement gained its strength from the hopes of working people: men were sent to Parliament who spoke fervently of their opposition to capitalism, inequality and privilege. Many of them, unlike the Tories and Liberals, were from the working class itself, had experienced poverty, knew the problems. When at last they came to govern with an unassailable majority, after the war, their policies gave birth to nothing; the real truth is that they had always been barren.

The I.L.P., a negligible force today, was nothing more in its strongest days. It stood for a benevolent capitalism, its leaders for the most part unaware that capitalism contained no seeds of benevolence. Only Maxton's idealism distinguishes him from the MacDonalds and Hendersons and Snowdens; had he attained parliamentary office, he would have been no more able than they to deserve the title of "beloved rebel," or even rebel. Perhaps the most pointed comment on all that Mr. McNair's book describes is contained in two recent death notices—David Kirkwood and George Buchanan. These, with Maxton, were firebrands among the "wild men" of the 1920s. They died reconciled to capitalism: the one titled, the other with his wildness tamed by service on the National Assistance Board.
Robert Barltrop  

Up in smoke (1999)

TV Review from the August 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard
The current series on BBC1, Tobacco Wars presented by Michael Buerk, has come at a fitting time. It is at the end of a century which has seen tobacco creep up closely behind wars as one of the biggest killers of the last hundred years. And as Buerk's programme has ably demonstrated, it was with gruesome irony that cigarettes were first introduced on a mass basis to the British working class during the First World War. Ostensibly it was to keep soldiers' minds off the death that stalked them in the foetid battlefields of Belgium and Northern France. But little did these soldiers realise at the time that death would be stalking them again before long, even if they were fortunate enough to survive the horrors of the trenches. It was truly the case that the actions of a profit-hungry ruling class would get them one way or the other.
That the capitalist system and the economic units within it can make profits out of killing people has always been an obscenity—that they can do so perfectly legally tells you all you need to know about where power really lies in the modern world and what the priorities are of those who wield it. Even now, many if not most workers think that even if there is a risk associated with smoking, tobacco cannot be as harmful as other drugs which are banned. Otherwise they wouldn't be banned would they? This view misses the point entirely. Drugs such as heroin and cocaine were banned by the ruling class because of the disruptive and often anti-social effects they can have on the workforce (cannabis too, with its tendency to make people somewhat lazy and carefree). Tobacco, with the powerful tobacco manufacturers acting as a pressure group with real influence, has never been put in this category.
The main problem with tobacco from the point of view of governments is the health issue, and the increased burdens its consumption places on already overstretched welfare and medical systems—hence direct taxation of the product. But just because it is legal doesn't mean it isn't dangerous, and by the same token just because some other drugs are illegal doesn't mean that governments aren't prepared to sanction their use whenever necessary. For instance, the British military still keeps a large stock of amphetamine sulphate (speed) to be given to troops in the event of protracted day/night land battles. And who knows (though we may soon find out) what rubbish they were pumping into soldiers bodies during the Gulf War?
Its a drag
The reality is that tobacco is just as dangerous as most of the drugs which are banned across the Western world. A recent survey of British medical specialists found that they ranked nicotine higher in the addiction stakes than even heroin and far in advance of most other banned substances. And this is not a harmless addiction either—tobacco actually kills far more people in the world than hard drugs like heroin and cocaine put together (largely, of course, because of its more widespread use). Even so, the percentage of regular tobacco users who will die from using that product (estimates vary between one third and a half) is little if anything behind the percentage of regular heroin users who will die from consumption of that particular drug. The only real difference is that tobacco users on average stay hooked for longer, with the deleterious effects of heroin being rather more immediate, addicts dying typically within a few years of becoming addicted or else going into detoxification within the same timeframe. Addiction and death are common features of both and yet tabloid newspapers scream every Sunday about Britain's sink council housing estates with their heroin junkie 12-year-olds, while accepting huge double-page adverts from the tobacco multinationals targeting teenagers as the next generation of cancer stick fodder.

Having successfully targeted women and young girls in recent decades under the banner of "liberation", the tobacco companies are now spreading their tentacles into the third world, planning to bring about a massive increase in smoking in Africa just as they have recently done in east Asia. Africans too, it would seem, are just a dollar or two away from being as sophisticated as Westerners. Meanwhile the hypocritical governments who claim to have declared war on tobacco still demonstrate that they are no less in the pocket of the multinationals than they ever were, as every tinpot dictator across the globe (and Bernie Ecclestone) can well testify.
Capitalism is a system with no real regard for the health of the mass of the population, and this came out loud and clear in Michael Buerk's programme. While the tobacco multinationals make their billions from their instruments of death, Hollywood markets them and capitalist political parties get the paybacks. The market is an economy where people really do make money from the legalised murder of the ignorant and inadequate, and it is a system which seeks to channel the disaffection of its young rebels without a cause into nothing more challenging than their own slow suicide.
And if that seems too cynical a view watch Buerk`s series and ruminate on the vast array of dodges and lies employed by the tobacco multinationals to protect their product and their profits when they have known of its serious dangers for about 40 years. And if you're still not convinced reflect too on the top tobacco executive who was asked some years ago by one of the models advertising his company's cigarettes why he himself didn't smoke. "Why should I?," he replied, "that's for the poor and the blacks."

Political Notes: 'Socialism in one country' (1981)

The Political Notes column from the November 1981 issue of the Socialist Standard

'Socialism in one country' (Britain)

At some point in every Labour Party conference the spectre of Clause Four appears, usually in the shape of some motion reasserting the belief that wholesale nationalisation is socialism and that that is what the party is committed to because it will mean a better life for everyone in Britain.

Well it is never quite as joyous as that because Clause Four is an embarrassment now, especially to Labour MPs with thin majorities, who are conscious that they are sitting on anything but a mandate to convert the means of production, distribution and exchange into common property.

So when they are confronted, as they were at Brighton in September, with a motion asking them to do what in theory they exist for—to nationalise, among other things, the financial institutions—they experience confusion to the point of panic.

One union opposed the motion because it has a lot of members in the insurance industry; another did so because it feared the effect nationalisation might have on the union's pension funds and investments.

At some stage somebody might like to explain why Labour Party members have any hesitation in unanimously acclaiming all motions in favour of nationalisation. They might also consider why they are in an organisation with interests which are opposed to the very policies it is supposed to support.

The answer to these difficulties is very simple. Nationalisation is not socialism; it is simply the state taking over an industry which was previously owned directly by private shareholders. Banks, investment houses, building societies, insurance companies and the like—state-owned or not—are a necessary part of capitalism; socialism, in contrast, will be a moneyless society in which wealth will not be exchanged and in which, therefore, there will be no means of exchange.

Were every item of Labour Party policy implemented tomorrow, the capitalist system would remain untouched. Socialism cannot exist in just one country. Its coming is delayed by the confusion and the deceit of the Labour Party.

'Socialism in one country' (Russia)

This month President Brezhnev plans to travel to Bonn but he is not going to try to convert the Germans to communism, which a few people might still believe exists in Russia.

He is going for more Russo/German trade talks and one of the matters he hopes to clear up is the price of Russian natural gas. This gas will be piped from the remote, inhospitable wastes of Siberia, where there is either 60 degrees of frost or impenetrable swampland. The pipeline will run through Czechoslovakia and then, the Russians plan, into the inviting industrial lands of Western Europe.

 The big snag is that, well before the gas has begun to flow, negotiations on the price are at deadlock, with the massive German importers, Ruhrgas, arguing that they are in a 'buyers' market and the Russians had better realise it.

So at present the Russians don't have a single signed up customer for their gas. The whole thing is, in other words, a typical commercial gamble, built on the labour of the Russia workers who had to brave the cold and the swamps to bring the project into reality.

Somebody might like to explain why Russia, which claims to be a communist country needs to involve itself in the precarious trade of international capitalism. Why does a communist state have to concern itself with negotiations with capitalist combines over prices, conditions of sale and the rest? And what will happen, in this communist country, if the gas can't be sold and all that investment doesn't yield a profit?

There is only one sensible reply to these questions. Russia is not a communist country; apart from anything else, communism cannot exist in one country; it will be a world wide social system. Russia has developed in the only way it could—it is a state capitalist country, as much concerned about its investments and trade as any other capitalist nation. And it is as susceptible to the chill winds of slump as any other.

Russian workers who froze and sweated and suffered to build the pipeline should reflect on the facts. If they draw the wrong conclusions there will be no better life for them, or for the rest of the world's people.

'Socialism in one country' (France)

Lights burned jubilantly late in left-wing abodes on the auspicious night when Francis Mitterrand was elected President of France. Glasses were clinked. Hands were shaken, Tears of joy were shed. For socialism had come to France.

We are now beginning to see what this means. Prime Minister Mauroy has announced that the government will build up the French nuclear arsenal and will develop a neutron bomb, which pleases capitalists because it kills people and leaves property intact. Mauroy calls all of this, as might be expected, a policy of deterrent "  . . . based on a strategic attack on cities."

Any member of the French ruling class silly enough to believe those happy lefties when they talked about Mitterrand introducing socialism must now be feeling mightily relieved. It is quite like old times; as Mauroy said
General de Gaulle was able to a lead a policy of military independence because he equipped the country with nuclear weapons. This government takes over this choice completely.
At some stage somebody might like to explain how a government which calls itself socialist can have the same policy as someone like de Gaulle. They might then consider whether there is some contradiction in such a government planning to build a destructive force aimed at killing workers in other countries. Doesn't socialism have something to do with internationalism?

There is only one way of satisfactorily answering these questions. No government can be socialist; it is a contradiction in terms. Mitterrand does not, and never did, stand for socialism but for a particular style of running French capitalism, which must basically be in the interests of the French ruling class.

Socialism will be a society without war and without, therefore, the means of waging war. The debate over which weapons of war are more efficient or more humane, is a debate about a feature of capitalism.

French workers who voted for Mitterrand under the impression that it is possible to have socialism in one country had better think again. And quickly; as Mauroy's promise makes clear, capitalist society grows daily more dangerous and socialism daily more urgent.

Workers of the world wake up! (1977)

From the January 1977 issue of the Socialist Standard

The title of this article is by way of an apology to Marx. His grave at Highgate is only a few miles from Hyde Park and his remains must have been gravely disturbed by two demonstrations attended by many thousands of workers at the end of November, one being for The Right to Work and the other against racialism. The first one is the sadder event in the eyes of a Socialist and the one that really must have made Marx turn in his grave, although the second is outrageous for reasons we come to later.

If Marx could have come to see the first demo, he would have dropped dead again immediately to see the forest of banners against the cuts which the fake-socialist government are compelled to introduce, on the orders of British capitalism which must be obeyed, and in favour of "The Right to Work". After all, it is well over a century ago that he told the working class they should inscribe on their banners not this sort of tosh (which is merely demanding the right to be exploited by the capitalist class) but "The Abolition of the Wages System". Around a century ago Marx's son-in-law Paul Lafargue wrote a pamphlet directly opposing the parrot-cry of the Right to Work and called it The Right to be Lazy. Yet here we are, at the end of 1976, watching the descendants of those same workers, with all the bitter lessons that capitalism has taught them over the years (well, should have taught them, anyway), with the experience of being governed by a so-called workers' government, something that was unheard of in those days, hugging their chains and complaining that they were not bound and fettered tight enough to the task of making profits for their rulers.

When the slaves of Pharaoh were building the pyramids and groaning under the lash of the slave-drivers, when Uncle Tom's friends were being driven by the plantation owners in the Southern States, they may not have done much thinking about a free society but at least they did not organize demos demanding the right to be sweated and scourged by their rulers. Marx would have grounds for despair if he could see the antics of the wage-slaves of the oldest of all capitalist societies today.

The workers have really no excuse. Other considerations apart, they should be aware that unemployment is an integral feature of capitalism and always has been. When goods stop selling, then capitalism simply must lay off workers. No amount of exhortation by the Jarrow marchers in the '30s against a mainly-Tory government, or by these demonstrators now against a so-called Labour government, us going to make a scrap of difference to hard economic realities. One advantage was gained by thousands of workers, however, since the Socialist Party went into the park to hold our own meetings and sell our literature, and our speakers told those of the demonstrators who would listen that they were simply wasting their time and their energies in marching for the abandonment of the cuts.

Even if the Callaghans and the Foots are sincere people, there is just nothing they can do against the inexorable laws of the system. After all, does anyone suppose that the National Government in the '30s really enjoyed having nearly 3 million unemployed on their hands (who incidentally had to be fed, or at any rate only half-starved)? Is it not time that the working class woke up and decided they were ready to act on the advice of Marx and abolish the wages system which causes unemployment, among a host of other evils? Is it not time to have a system where not only unemployment would be abolished but employment, too? Where everyone will work freely instead of being employed by masters (that is, when the masters want you) for their — the masters' — profit?

It is perhaps a pity that workers don't, on the whole, read that ancient organ of British capitalism, The Times. The chap who runs the "Times Diary", a highly-paid worker who does not understand the first thing about capitalism or Socialism (he would be horrified to know that he too was a wage-slave) had a paragraph about the SPGB meeting in his description of the demo. As he has deigned to notice us a few times recently, that must be a strike in his favour. He mentioned that one of our speakers was lambasting a heckler and telling him not to bemuse himself with his right-to-work slogans. The heckler was one of the numerous Trotskyists of various splinters who were in the demo ("at least we are doing something" — no doubt they could make the same claim of they were merely banging their heads against a wall which, in essence, is what they were at). They were flogging their pamphlets, all replete with headlines of the reformist slogans which the demonstrators had on their banners. And these are the very people who have the nerve to attack Labour politicians because they are reformists. One heckler was carrying a paper with a headline which looked to say "Down with Capitalism": which was interesting to say the least. However, on closer inspection it read "Down with Capitalism's Cuts". The "revolutionary" idiot (who, like most of his ilk, was more intent on preventing our case being heard than taking part on a democratic argument; they carry banners denouncing fascism but of course are incipient fascists themselves) and the "Marxists", Maoists, Trotskyists, etc., really think you can keep capitalism intact but without its cuts. And its wounds and its scars and its deaths.

A few days later, we witnessed — and addressed — another crowd of demonstrators who, this time, were on about racialism, which is just another evil produced by capitalism. (You could have a demo a day for a whole year against a different evil and not exhaust the list. And still not get rid of one of them!) The real thing about this one — which apparently never occurred to most of the marchers — was that it was actually run by the Labour  Party and addressed by well-known leftist humbugs from the present government. Everyone was busy denouncing racialist legislation, quite oblivious to the fact that it's a Labour Government in power which could remove it if it wanted. In fact, under Wilson, they actually brought in some of the vilest racialist laws themselves. Need we say more?
L. E. Weidberg 

Greasy Pole: Wandering in Wolverhampton (2015)

The Greasy Pole Column from the June 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard
Even without the entertainment of 2010 – like Gordon Brown misunderstanding the word 'mobile' to mean using his phone as a missile aimed at his underlings – this year's general election was historically exciting. If we were not moved by sympathy for the defeated leaders such as Miliband, Clegg and Balls and gratitude for their justifying this system of poverty, disease and conflict there was also the matter of the marginal constituencies with their particular tension between some desperately participating tricksters . Prominent among these was Wolverhampton South West, famous as a hyper-marginal but regarded as safe Conservative until it fell to Blair's runaway victory in 1997. In 2010 it reacted to give the Tory Paul Uppal a majority of 691 over Labour's Rob Marris who had persistently declared his intention to win the seat back. In all it was enough to satisfy the hungriest psephology obsessive.
It turned out to be one of the few Labour gains, giving Marris a majority of 801. He was delighted: 'It's not been a good night for Labour nationally, quite a good night for Labour in parts of the West Midlands and of course a great night for Labour here in Wolverhampton'. For Uppal, perhaps because the late Enoch Powell was once the local MP, it was not so good. He describes himself as a 'Smethwick-born Sikh' whose father came from East Africa in 1961 and he was a babe in arms when Powell declared himself to be 'filled with foreboding' at the prospect of unchecked immigration from the Commonwealth. He can recall the Deputy Head of his school enquiring of his class if they were planning to spend time during the week-end 'Paki-bashing' but now he says there are 'various groups' which get on 'incredibly well' so that Powell's widow 'tells me that he would have loved me'. However there is still anti-immigrant feeling there, directed against those coming from Eastern Europe for roughly the same reasons as did Uppal's father all those years ago. For all is not well in the Midlands: 32.4 per cent of the employed people in Wolverhampton South West receive below the official living wage of £7.86 an hour, so that the single food bank which was there to help the most needy people in 2010 has sprouted into five.
River Tiber
The immigrants were at first welcomed by Powell but in April 1968, when he was Ted Heath's Shadow Defence Secretary, he responded to the Race Relations Act and the prohibition of discrimination in matters such as housing on grounds of race by his controversial, enduringly quoted speech which included the passage 'Like the Roman, I seem to see the River Tiber foaming with much blood. That tragic and intractable phenomenon which we watch with horror on the other side of the Atlantic ….is coming upon us here by our own volition and our own neglect. Indeed, it has all but come...Only resolute and urgent action will avert it even now'. This was ominously attractive; notably the London Dockers demonstrated their support in a march – even although that reference to the River Tiber was a reminder of Powell's reputation as a classical scholar. As a youth at King Edward's School in Birmingham he had been one of a select few to be awarded a 100 percent mark in an end-of-term examination. Later at Cambridge he sat an examination in Greek prose which was timed to last three hours but he was able to leave after an hour and a half because in that time he had produced appropriate translations. He went on to accumulate several classics prizes and ended with a Double First degree, presented to him at a ceremony disciplined in the university traditions of dress, speech, demeanour and the like.
Ulster Unionist
Before the protests over his 'river foaming with blood' speech Powell's contributions in the Commons often aroused a torrent of adoring praise: 'The cleverest person I have seen in this place' was the opinion of Bruce Grocott, who in the 1970s was Minister of Agriculture and PPS to Tony Blair. From the other side the venomous ex-Etonian Tory MP Alan Clark sneered at the style of some of the MPs in a debate: '...bellowing any point concerning which his conscience made him uneasy...' and '...cannot speak or even read particularly well' but when it came to Powell's contribution: '...perfectly brilliant; what a superb Chancellor he would make'. But Powell was not consistent in his opposition to immigration. During his time as one of Edward Heath's ministers he campaigned for policies which were designed to assert the superiority of market forces above state planning in matters such as housing, social services and the level of the exchange rate. At this time one opinion of him was Andrew Gamble's '...the foremost critic of the new interventionist state the Conservatives developed to help restructure capital and contain wages'.  But in this Powell took no account of the fact that immigration, as a response to the demands of the market and the availability of opportunity, was an expression of market forces; indeed during his time as Minister of Health there was an active drive to recruit immigrants to fill vacancies in hospitals and the like. And during his closing years he confusedly turned his back on the Conservative Party and, in the general election of October 1974, became an Ulster Unionist MP while advising the voters to support the Labour Party. When he died in February 1998 along with his reputation as a political firebrand there were rumours that he had been involved in a Westminster paedophile network. Powell's biographer Simon Heffer strongly disputes the allegations but the matter had been passed to the police by the Bishop of Durham.
The voters of Wolverhampton South West and of all the other constituencies have questions to consider now, after their votes have returned a Tory government with an avowed policy of tightening the screw of poverty as against the Labour Party alternative to do roughly the same. They should now ask themselves if this is the most effective use of their power to alter this society in the best interests of all its people.

Wilson: Man and Superman (1967)

From the March 1967 issue of the Socialist Standard

Labour's leaders are a queer lot. They come in all shapes and sizes; crafty Attlee, blundering Gaitskell, pious Lansbury, and the traitorous MacDonald are a representative selection. But, if you search for one word to sum them all up, it must be ineffectual. One replaces the other in dreary succession and yet the impact they make on the capitalist world is barely detectable. After Hugh Gaitskell died, one of his biographers wrote" "He is gone, but mankind is better for his life. He was as great man a man as I have known at any time." But it would have been more convincing if he had explained just what services Gaitskell—or any of the others—was supposed to have done for 'mankind'.

The latest in this line, of course, Harold Wilson. There was a good deal of excitement among supporters of the Labour party when he beat George Brown in the fight for the leadership. Here was a proved left-winger, they told us. A man of principle. Hadn't he resigned from the government with Bevan over national health charges? With him as leader, who could doubt that Socialism was not just round the corner? There was a general atmosphere of euphoria, with the Labour party and all its dissident hangers-on singing Wilson's praises. Only the Socialist Party of Great Britain stayed calm and analysed the new leader's prospects in an article, in the SOCIALIST STANDARD, which turned out to be virtually prophetic. One passage had this to say:
The next Labour Prime Minister will run capitalism, as far as he can, just as the Tories have run it — in the interests of the capitalist class. He will make war, if British capitalism demands it. He will oppress the working class just as much as ruling class interests say they must be oppressed. He will fight the workers over their wages and working conditions just as any other Prime Minister has done. He will, for example, be concerned to restrict wage claims as far as possible. (See 'Labour'e New Leader'—SOCIALIST STANDARD, March 1963).
At the time this was confidently dismissed as sectarian dogmatism and most Labour party supporters  remained convinced that Wilson would make a better leader than his predecessor. In a very limited sense, there s probably something in that. Gaitskell's public image was bad. He came across as a rather neurotic intellectual, with an irritating public school accent. Wilson, on the other hand, had a far more polished performance. A Conservative MP, with a keen eye of the professional politician, assessed Wilson's craftsmanship as follows:
He  . . . needed to play his hand coolly. This he did consummately and could not be faulted for the first ten months. On the television screen he appeared as the quiet, reasonable family man with a knowledge of ordinary people's problems. He fingered his pipe perhaps a little too obviously, but his performance bore all the signs of the best expert guidance and he made an excellent impression.
Compared to MacMillan and Home, his Conservative opponents, Wilson was youngish and marginally better looking—definite assets in the Kennedy era. His wife was prepared to swear that "he is a good man. He is conscientious and sincere  . . . " and so on ad nauseam. From the serious political standpoint such considerations can be dismissed as nonsense but, in those parties which set out to grab every available vote by any possible methods, they are vitally important bait for the electorate. There is no doubt about it; pipes and fancy raincoats can, on occasions, work wonders. If gimmicks were all that was needed to achieve Socialism, the Labour party would be home and dry.

Another aspect of Wilson's personality which received a good deal of attention from his publicity men was his "intelligence." It was stressed that he was a trained economist and Oxford don, with a first class honours degree to his credit. Capitalism was to be tamed by a magical combination of brains and ruthless integrity, Wilson having nothing but contempt for the Conservatives' inept handling of the economy—which forced them to stagger from one crisis to another:
The pattern is only too familiar to us all now. Crisis and seven per cent bank rate in 1957, crisis and seven per cent bank rate in 1961. Panic cuts, wage freezes, deflation leading to unemployment. (Speech at Nottingham, 19th September, 1963).
The labour unions are threatened with all the pains of hell in a holy wages freeze or 'pay pause'  . . . We are forced to borrow abroad on a prodigious scale.
Foreign capital is reassured, the economy is once again 'sound'—and Britain is reduced to below-capacity working and a measure of short-time and unemployment on the labour market, growing in intensity at each repetition of the circle. (The Relevance of British Socialism).
Wilson wasn't to know that this scathing attack on the Tory government was to become a summary of his own administration's policy. He might have seemed brilliant in the secluded environment of Oxford, but, in the jungle of capitalism, his clumsy manoeuvres look amateurish and pathetic. Although some workers may still draw comfort from the sight of Harold puffing at his pipe, most are finding it a poor antidote for the wage freeze and unemployment.

In fact, millions of working men and women have been bitterly disappointed by Wilson. The Labour party, with all its dissenting satellites, maintained that a Labour government would improve wages and working conditions. Now that just the opposite has been achieved the left wing organisations are trying to cash in on the widespread resentment. Groups like the 'Communist' party and 'Socialist' Labour League, both of which ardently campaigned for a Labour victory at the last election, now denounce Wilson as a turncoat and traitor. This is typical of the confusion of these parties. Failing to understand the nature of capitalism, they identify its problem with one man. They protest against the fall in real wages and the increase in unemployment, but never against the wages system or the class division of a society which separates men into employers and employed. Their solution amounts to changing the leadership, but they never question the need for leaders. They are the eternal optimists. Time and again they claim to have been 'stabbed in the back'—by MacDonald, by Attlee and now by Wilson. Yet they go on searching for the right leader, the one who will make capitalism run smoothly and operate fairly—how he is to do it they never explain. They are the Labour rump, with nothing to offer the working class but a repetition of past mistakes.

Our criticism of Wilson is quite different. We do not condemn him for failing to run capitalism in the interests of the working class; such a thing just can't be done. The damage which a man like Wilson does is in the disillusionment which follows his broken promises. Many workers still believe the Labour party is a Socialist organisation and, when they see the sorry mess Wilson's government is in, they take this as the failure of Socialism. They should remember the concluding words of our article on 'Labour's New Leader' back in March, 1963:
Leaders come and go, but capitalism will go on until the very people who support and admire the leaders come to understand the social system they live under. The leaders always say . . . that they stand for a world of peace and human dignity. But only when the system which needs the leaders is gone will their empty and cynical words become reality.
John Crump

Labour's new leader (1963)

From the March 1963 issue of the Socialist Standard

For the moment, at any rate, the firing has ceased. And out of the settling dust of battle, a little tattered but nevertheless smiling heartily, has come Mr. Wilson, confirmed by the votes of anxious Labour M.P.s as the Labour Party's new leader and perhaps, therefore, the next Prime Minister of this country.

Some time before the first ballot, the fighting lines had been drawn up. Certain M.P.s announced that they were sponsoring one or the other of the original three candidates and some newspapers came down for the man of their choice. The Guardian wanted Callaghan as long as he was in the race; The Economist wanted George Brown.

Everybody was wondering: Who will win? Nobody seemed to be interested in asking the question which really counts: Does it matter?

Gaitskell's death has been described as a great blow to the Labour Party and to the people of this country. As usually happens when an eminent somebody dies, all sorts of people have rushed to the television or the radio or the newspaper to tell us what a great man Gaitskell was. How wise. How knowledgeable. How honest. And as well as all this, how gay. Countless fellow-politicians have gone out of their way to draw attention to supposed qualities in Gaitskell which these same men had assiduously ignored when he was alive. We should all be feeling shattered. It seems that the Labour leader's death was a bit of massively bad luck for us all.

It was, of course, not time to dwell upon Hugh Gaitskell's political mistakes. No time to recall that he blundered over Suez, when he openly appealed to Conservative M.P.s to desert the government—a move which, of course, stirred up the Tories' loyalty and so had the opposite effect to that which Gaitskell intended. No time, either, to recall the mistake over Clause Four, when Gaitskell first aroused the muddled pioneer element in the Labour Party and then hastily withdrew from the battle, when he must have known all along that he could ignore Clause Four anyway. Gaitskell's period as leader was a succession of public rows in the Labour Party, accompanied by the expected nervous assurances that the party was solidly united. It is doubtful that, if he had been made Prime Minister, he would have been remembered as one in the crafty, ruthless mould of, say, a Lloyd George nor as one in the casual contemptuous mould of a Macmillan.

As he died, Gaitskell seemed to be coming up for his turn at the top job. Now that the government's popularity is registering such a low point, with even the weather co-operating in making them seem inefficient, the Labour Party is all in a sweat that their fortunes should hold until the next polling day. Labour M.P.s now go carefully, lest a word or a vote out of place should upset the delicately balanced apple cart upon which they hope to be wheeled in triumph to Westminster. It is, of course, an open question whether the Tories will work the old trick again and, as in 1959 when many people, including Gaitskell, expected the Labour Party to take power, turn all the forecasts upside down. If this happens we may be sure that there will be more rows in the Labour Party, with the disappointed office-seekers blaming the new leader for yet another defeat.

Perhaps Labour's greatest difficulty is the theory, which seems so popular among workers that the Conservatives are the natural ruling party of British capitalism and that the Labour Party is a bunch of rather reckless dogmatists. When we remember the unmistakable way in which the Attlee government ran British capitalism—breaking strikes, freezing wages, protecting the overseas interests of the British capitalist class—we know how laughable this theory is. Nevertheless, it exists, and there are certain historical reasons for it doing so.

At one time the Labour Party was loaded with theorists. They had their share of men like Strachey and Cripps  who knew something about political theory and could argue it. Both these men were, naturally, sober and respectable upholders of capitalist virtue in the 1945 Labour government. But presumably the memory of the things they said in the old days dies hard, Cripps, for one, was once an outstanding nuisance to the Labour Party, which expelled him for his activities in the Socialist League, Even when, as Minister of Aircraft Production, he was organising the making of the bombers which pounded the German cities, and when as Chancellor of the Exchequer he was fighting to hold down wages, the taint of his earlier indiscretions still hung about him. He was never a popular minister.

The past
Nor does it end there. It is typical of the confusion in Labour Party thinking that it should keep in its Constitution quaint traces of democracy which clash directly with its desire to take over British capitalism. These traces are vestiges of the days when the theorists were farther from power than they are today, and therefore were safer and more respected. The Economist, on January 26th, was fretting about one of these vestiges:
The most appalling feature of the parliamentary Labour Party's constitution is that it provides for this sort of election for the party leadership to take place every year . . . there is unhappily no guarantee that whoever is elected leader next month will be accorded similar security of tenure (as Mr. Gaitskell)  . . .
What is capitalism to make of a party which in theory can elect a new Prime Minister every year? A party which does not know whether it wants to run capitalism or to appear to be a democratic organisation? 

This was something of what Hugh Gaitskell was trying, albeit clumsily, to destroy. He was the leader who made it clear that the decisions of Labour conferences could be ignored by a future Labour government. This was something which Attlee had always appreciated; it was typical of Gaitskell that he chose to fight a public battle over an issue which he had won before he started. Perhaps Gaitskell saw his party's salvation in their openly becoming another Conservative Party, entirely shorn of theorists and standing only as a responsible administration for British capitalism. There has never been any fundamental difference between the two parties anyway. Samuel Brittan, Economic Editor of The Observer, is one who has realised this. On January 27th last he wrote:
One of the myths of British politics is that there is a huge difference between the Conservative and Labour Parties. Businessmen in particular tend to suppose that a change of Government would bring a radical change in the whole economic environment. Faced with this myth it is hardly worth saying: "No such luck! The basic approach of the two parties is all too depressingly similar."
If the Labour Party are an alternative administration for British capitalism, we may well think the ruling class sometimes wish that they were a stronger alternative. A party which seems almost unable to lose an election, as the Tories seemed for so long, could be a nuisance to some sections of the capitalist class. Such a party could come to think that it was virtually unbeatable at election time and so could do whatever it liked. Capitalism does not want such a government. It wants a government which is open to pressure, a government which can be moulded, a government which treads carefully. So capitalism needs an alternative government always ready. It must have been greatly disappointed in the Labour Party over the past few years.

And for the future? The result of the ballot can make no difference. The newspapers may have got het up over the various candidates, but the fact is that this is all a waste of time. The next Labour Prime Minister will run capitalism, as far as he can, just as the Tories have run it—in the interests of the capitalist class. He will make war, if British capitalism demands it. He will oppress the working class just as much as ruling class interests say they must be oppressed. He will fight the workers over their wages and working conditions just as any other Prime Minister has done. He will, for example, be concerned to restrict wage claims as far as possible. This is what Mr. Harold Wilson wrote about wage claims in the Manchester Guardian on October  25th, 1957:
Whether . . . a Conservative Government can now create the conditions in which wage restraint could once again become a reality is a matter for opinion . . .
For a Labour Government, no less than for the Conservatives, success or failure in the battle against inflation would depend on its ability to secure an understanding with the unions which would make wage restraint possible.
Here the Labour Party attitude to wages is set out clear. They know that capitalism cannot allow unrestricted wages for its workers and they argue that they, with their special connections with the Trade Union movement, are better equipped to hold them down than are the Tories. Which shows how little the working class can hope for from a future Labour government.

Hugh Gaitskell is gone to his untimely end and nobody wants to be mean about that. But the facts must be clear. Leaders may come and go, but capitalism will go on until the very people who support and admire the leaders come to understand the social system they live under. The leaders always say, as Gaitskell used to, that they stand for a world of peace and human dignity. But only when the system needs the leaders is gone will their empty and cynical words become reality.

Editorial: The Aftermath (2015)

Editorial from the June 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard

Contrary to expectations, there was no hung parliament and there isn’t a coalition government. Just a one-party Tory government with a small majority. No moulds were broken except of course in Scotland where there was a near clean sweep for the SNP which now holds 56 of the 59 seats there reducing the number of Scottish Labour MPs from 41 to just one.

The Tory victory means that there will now definitely be an in/out referendum on whether the UK should withdraw from the EU. In promising this Cameron took a big risk: that a majority might vote to withdraw whereas Big Business, whose interests the Tory party traditionally champions, wants to stay in. Given the prevailing mood of xenophobia which he helped to stoke up to try to stop people voting UKIP instead of Tory, he is going to have to prove to be an astute politician if he’s going to serve Big Business well and also avoid the financial and economic crisis that a No vote would provoke.

For socialists the issue of whether or not capitalist Britain withdraws from the capitalist EU is irrelevant from the point of view of those forced to work for a wage or salary. The EU is an intergovernmental arrangement between capitalist states the dominant section of whose ruling class perceives it to be in their interest to create a vast tariff-free single market for their goods  with the same common standards; also to pool some of their sovereignty to be in a better bargaining position in negotiations with other capitalist states and blocs over trade and other economic matters.

It is true that some sections of the capitalist class in Britain – those producing mainly for the home market or mainly for export outside Europe – are in favour of withdrawal  but they are a minority. It’s a dispute between two sections of the capitalist class. This is why as socialists we shall be urging people neither to vote Yes nor to vote No. Even so,  as world socialists who stand for a world without frontiers we will be particularly opposed to those leftwingers who will be beating the nationalist drum for a No to EU vote.

Labour’s failure even to obtain more seats than the Tories led to Ed Miliband throwing himself into the dustbin of history, starting off a contest for the leadership of the Labour Party. All the candidates seem to have come to the same conclusion: that to win again Labour will have to become a nasty party like the Tories. One says that Labour lost because they weren’t tough enough on immigration. Another that they were too tough on business. A third says it was a mistake to have concentrated on promises to end zero-hour contracts and raise the minimum wage as these don’t concern most voters. It looks as if the Labour Party is going to get the Leader it deserves.

The only positive outcome of the election was what happened in Scotland. Not of course the vote for the petty-minded, subsidy-seeking Scottish Nationalists but a demonstration that it is possible for people’s political views to change dramatically in a relatively short period of time.