Editorial from the April 1944 issue of the Socialist Standard
Sir Richard Acland's Common Wealth is a party of small membership, substantial funds, big ideas and monumental confusion. Formed in July, 1942, it had a membership at the end of that year of 5,000 (1943 Conference Report, page 18), though by April, 1943, it claimed nearly 10,000. Its income from subscriptions and donations in its first nine months was £7,000, of which only about half Was in amounts of under £50. Two individuals. Sir R. Acland and Mr. Alan Good, a wealthy Midlands business man, guaranteed between them £1,000 a month for two years (page 6). For 1943 the Party budgeted for an expenditure of £22,000, and plans to put up candidates in 120 constituencies (News Chronicle, February 16th, 1944). The latest move was to call a meeting of Labour, Liberal, I.L.P. and Independent M.P.s and others with the intention of starting a "Socialist Unity Campaign," which was to bring together members of the Labour Party, Common Wealth, I.L.P., Communist Party and Liberals in the "Radical Action" group to secure a Parliamentary majority at the next general election (Manchester Guardian, March 8th, 1944.) The meeting, according to the Daily Telegraph (March 9th) failed to bring any Labour M.P.s, though the I.L.P. was there in strength, including its M.P.s, its General Secretary, Mr. J. McNair, and Mr. F. A. Ridley. It can hardly be called a success. A cleavage developed between Acland, who is all out for winning the war, and some of the I.L.P. contingent, who adopt a more or less anti-war attitude. It is typical of Common Wealth's attitude of being all things to all men that it should imagine this strange mixture, including loyal Liberals, could be interested in "Socialist" unity. The same confusion is apparent in all its activities. It makes a special point of its religious inspiration and at the Skipton by-election, where its candidate was successful, a voter informed the News Chronicle (January 11th, 1944) that she supported Common Wealth because “ it was the only political party which emphasised the Christian point of view"—yet "Question and Answer" one of its publications, insists that it is open to Christians, Jews, Hindus, Moslems, and Atheists (page 59), and one of its first rebuffs was an announcement that it was to be boycotted by Catholics on the ground that "it has rejected Christianity" (Daily Herald, August 8th, 1942). In view of the infamies committed by politicians of all the capitalist parties, who almost invariably claim to be religious and acting in accordance with religious teachings, this emphasis on religion is hardly a recommendation. Moreover, Sir R. Acland has himself unwittingly exposed how little it means. In a letter to the Times (October 15th, 1943) he claimed for his party that "it is probably more concerned . . . with the inter-relations between religion and politics than any political organisation since the Labour Party as it was in the days of Keir Hardie." If a religious outlook is as Sir R. Acland seems to think, a guarantee that a party will prove a fit instrument for the achievement of Socialism, why did it not prove to be so for the Labour Party? And why is Common Wealth so critical of the present Labour Party, the child of the party of Keir Hardie's day?
Common Wealth will find that the nearer it gets to power (if ever it does), the more its actions will be determined by the economic and class factors imposed by its acceptance of State capitalism. Its religions inspiration will count for nothing, and like many other trimmings, will be dropped or disregarded in the rough and tumble of electoral vote-catching. How little its methods differ from those of the older parties of capitalist reform is indicated by statements made to the News Chronicle (January 11th, 1944) by voters who supported Common Wealth at Skipton. One local councillor gave as his reason, “I am a Gladstonian Liberal with a progressive mind. Common Wealth is the closest approach to what I want." Another voter was concerned with protecting his little business against the combines; a third, a co-operator thought Common Wealth approached her "ideal of Socialism," and a fourth voted "as her husband voted. It is a good thing to get younger people in Parliament—and to have old-age pensions at 30s. a week."
The one outstanding feature of Common Wealth's activities is its opposition to supporters of the political truce, and this is the real reason why it has been able to send what has been dubbed its "travelling circus" roaring successfully into by-election campaigns. The first fine careless rapture of the coalition government has worn off. Labour Party official speakers who had to go to West Derbyshire and support the Tory, Lord Hartington, were plainly ill-at-ease in face of criticism from Labour voters. Common Wealth is capitalising this dissatisfaction. While the electoral truce lasts it can hope to do well, though already its monopoly is being challenged by the Liberal and Communist parties, both of which are veering towards a course which will relieve them of having to support Tories. When the political truce ends and the Labour Party fights on its own against Tory candidates. Common Wealth will have to make the choice either to remain a small independent group or to merge in or ally itself with the Labour Party where it naturally belongs.
What chiefly concerns us, however, is the fantastic claim that Common Wealth is a Socialist organisation.
Those who do not look closely at the programmes and activities of the political parties they support notice that Common Wealth claims to stand for Socialism and "common ownership," as does the S.P.G.B., and they wonder therefore why the S.P.G.B. is opposed to the Common Wealth Party. The explanation is that, in spite of the words it uses, Acland's party does not stand for Socialism or common ownership; it is merely using the words in the same loose way as the Labour Party. Common Wealth has actually taken over its phrases, from the Constitution of the Labour Party, in which appears the declaration that the Labour Party stands for "the common ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange." Every Socialist will at once recognise that the inclusion of the word "exchange" in the declared aim, both of the Labour Party and of Common Wealth, is itself an unmistakable proof that they are not aiming at Socialism, under which, of course, there will be no need for the capitalist mechanism of buying and selling. Goods will not be produced for sale or exchange but solely for use. Common Wealth is little more than a "ginger" group trying to stir up the Labour Party and at the same time to attract elements in the Liberal and Tory parties and voters outside all parties. In their own words, "We are not against the Labour Party. We regard as our friends and allies all those within the Labour Party who are seeking to promote a more inspiring leadership." (Common Wealth, Bristol, Publication No. 2.)
Socialists are not at all concerned with the qualities of leadership displayed by .the Labour Party or any other party. Socialists do not need leadership; and leaders cannot lead non-socialists to Socialism.
What is the outstanding problem of to-day? It is not the choice between backing the Beveridge plan and backing the Churchill supporters' promise of "something better than Beveridge"; nor is it the choice between capitalism run by competitive private groups and capitalism run by private monopolies or under State control—this despite Mr. Herbert Morrison's shrewd view that “ for some time after the war Britain will be working out a form of partnership between the State and big business" (Sunday Express, March 5th, 1944). The vital question for the working class is one of ownership. Sir William Beveridge—who is not in favour of ending the state of affairs he mentions—-has admitted that “nearly 80 per cent, of the private wealth of the country was owned by 7 per cent of the people " (Times, November 30th,. 1948). This is the workers' real problem. Shall this capitalist ownership of the means of production and distribution be ended, and replaced by ownership and democratic control by the whole community, with its necessary accompaniment—the ending of all incomes from property and the ending of the wages system, or shall capitalism continue. This is the issue between Socialists on the one side and all who are prepared to carry on capitalism, whether in the form of private monopolies or in the form of State capitalism. Common Wealth, behind its muddled ideas and fancy schemes, is not aiming at Socialism. Like the Labour Party (which it chides for lukewarmness about its own programme), Common Wealth aims merely at nationalisation or State capitalism.
There is no room for doubt about where Common Wealth stands on this issue. Their "Manifesto" demands "the nationalisation of the mines and of the biggest arms factories at once " (page 9), and ultimately wants the land, the banks, fuel and poorer, transport, etc., "wholly transferred to common ownership." There is to be "reasonable compensation on a sliding scale to existing owners, starting with 100 per cent, compensation to the smallest owners, and falling to some quite small percentage in the case of the largest" (page 8).
Socialists would ask why the talk of compensation? Are capitalists to be compensated for relinquishing the right to exploit the workers? And if so, how can they be compensated except by allowing them to continue the exploitation-— as, indeed, Common Wealth proposes. How will these schemes of State capitalism solve the workers' problem', and how can banks, which are nothing but instruments of capitalist industry and trade, be "commonly, owned"? What function could they serve under Socialism? The pamphlet continues :—-
Under common' ownership, as in the Soviet Union to-day, the functions of money are: To allocate to individuals groups and industries within the community their appropriate total share in the goods and services of the community. . . .
Here we have Sir B. Acland's Party's real aim, of promoting State capitalism on the basis of a structure of vast and growing inequality (" as in the Soviet Union to-day "), between the fortunate managerial groups and others with their great incomes and investments in State bonds, and the unfortunate hewers of wood and drawers of water on the poverty line, all under the smooth sounding principle of allocating to each "their appropriate total share."
Have we not nationalisation already here, in the Post Office, and near-nationalisation in the Public Utility Corporations? And do not those responsible proclaim that each individual, from the bus-driver to the £12,500 head of London Passenger Transport, and from the low-paid and often unpensioned thousands in tho Post Office up to the £3,000 a year Director-General, all get "their appropriate share"? Yet the fact remains that the "appropriate" share at the top of nationalised concerns, here and in Russia, can be thirty, fifty or more times the amount paid to the workers at the bottom. Well might the Chairman of the Union of Post Office Workers say, "Post Office workers knew that at present there was very little difference between their conditions in a nationalised industry and those of workers outside" (Daily Herald, May 4th, 1943).
Common Wealth is merely carrying on in the long tradition of those who blindly or wilfully confuse the capitalist problem of nationalising the control of certain industries and services, in the interest of capitalist efficiency, with the workers' problem of ending capitalist ownership. A Tory Government in 1868 nationalised the Telegraphs. A Tory Government began and a Liberal Government completed Telephone nationalisation between 1905 and 1912. Liberals set up the Port of London Authority in 1908, and Tories established the Metropolitan Water Board in 1902, and the Central Electricity Board in 1926. Mr. Herbert Morrison began the move to establish the London Passenger Transport Board in 1931, and it was completed under the National Government in 1933. A move in the opposite direction was the handing over of Post Office Beam Wireless and Government cables to the Cable-Wireless merger. It was begun in 1924, and actually the last formal step was completed after the advent of the Labour Government in 1929. None of this has any bearing on the Socialist problem of ending capitalism and establishing Socialism; but because of the prevailing confusion of ideas, Mr. Herbert Morrison could naturally tell the boys at Malvern School that "more Socialism was done by the Conservative Party, which opposed it, than by the Labour Party, which was in favour of it" (Times, February 12th, 1944). Common Wealth is stepping in to do what it thinks the Labour Party is neglecting. Meanwhile the real problem remains untouched, and Common Wealth is not going to do anything about it.
One or two incidental features of its programme deserve notice. While all in favour of nationalisation, the party is warily avoiding having to defend actual operation by Government departments; thus following Mr. Herbert Morrison's lead. Common Wealth does not propose handing over industry “to the present civil service. Let the managers and technicians who are actually doing the job have a free hand to go all-out for production and efficiency" (C. W., Bristol, Publication No. 2). Letting managers and technicians have a free hand recalls the anti-democratic propaganda of those who want industry controlled by a new group of dictatorial "experts," It does not sound much like the "democracy in industry" that Sir B. Acland holds out as a bait to trade unionist voters. Nor is it much altered by the supposedly enticing carrot of Production Councils promised in the Common Wealth Manifesto (page 6);—
Production Councils for war purposes, even working within the limits allowed by private ownership, have shown how workers could share responsibility for the running of factories and industries with technicians and production management.
Workers know very well that behind the camouflage of joint councils, Whitley Committees and so on, effective control still rests with the capitalist owners or the capitalist State. Common Wealth, however, can see that while it offers "security and equality" to the low-paid workers, it can make a separate appeal to the managerial and technical group of the working class by promising them more authority and of course larger incomes. (Despite "equality for all citizens" on page 2, on page 6 is the promise of "higher wages and salaries to men who do skilled and responsible jobs.") Whereas it took the Bolshevists some years to drop Lenin's plea for equal pay for all workers from top to bottom. Common Wealth is managing to combine the promise and the repudiation of equality in the same pamphlet. It need only be repeated, to remove possible confusion, that Socialism involves the abolition of the wages system in its entirety— another proof that Common Wealth does not understand or aim at Socialism.
We shall be surprised if Common Wealth survives the ending of the political truce. We doubt if either the capitalist class or the non-socialist workers will have any use for this new conglomeration of old reforms preached by new reformers. We are, however, quite safe in prophesying that, whether Common Wealth eventually gets crushed between the millstones of Tory and Labour, or whether it survives to reach office, it will not solve the problem of the workers, and it has already—by its confusion-mongering—helped to postpone the day when the workers will understand and demand Socialism.