Max Shachtman


Aspects of the British Labour Government

Exploring the Theoretical and Political Evidence

(January 1951)

From New International, Vol. XVII No. 1, January–February 1951, pp. 3–18
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

With the article by Max Shachtman we herewith introduce a discussion on the nature of the British regime. In this issue we supplement the discussion with an article by Henry Judd, and two reviews by Gordon Haskell. It is our intention to continue the discussion here opened n later issues of The New International. – The Editors

* * *

Great Britain has had its first completely Labour Party government in power for more than five years, swept into office as the decisive majority of Parliament in 1945 and returned to office, though with a narrow majority, in the general elections of last year. The earlier Labour Party governments, in 1924 and in 1928, both under the late Ramsay MacDonald, were based upon a parliamentary minority and could be dismissed at any moment by the adverse vote of the combined Tory-Liberal majority. The two Attlee governments on the other hand, have been in a position where they could not claim that their existence and with it their ability to carry out the avowed program of the Labour Party, depended upon the tolerance of the Tories or the Liberals or even of both combined, for since 1945 they have had enough parliamentary support to adopt any course they decided upon regardless of the opposition. This difference likewise distinguishes the Attlee governments from virtually all the Social-Democratic governments we have seen in Europe for more than thirty years, since in almost all cases they were either like the MacDonald governments – dependent upon the tolerance of a bourgeois parliamentary majority – or in addition they were in ministerial coalitions with bourgeois parties.

This is only one difference, and as may be seen further on there are others of no smaller significance. The total of them is represented in the five- year record of the Labour government. It is not – certainly the whole of it is not – the record or even the kind of record expected by the revolutionary Marxists before it took power. This assertion is by itself of no stunning importance and will startle only those who regard Marxism as a flinty dogma or look for it to possess magical properties of prophecy. Of much greater importance is the fact that so much confusion has been created among Marxists by the Labour Party government and the problem which it raises – and not among Marxists alone. The problem was not raised so acutely in 1945 but after what has happened in the past five years, it is imperiously posed before us and the worst thing we could do would be to pretend that it does not exist. Fortunately, we are in a better position to treat it now than we were then. This article is devoted to treating it, not exhaustively but in outline, and is intended to reduce the dimensions of the confusion.

What is the problem? To most political persons, including many who consider themselves Marxists, it seems to be represented by this question: Can capitalism be abolished and socialism reached by the parliamentary road alone and by peaceful means, or is that one of the possible roads to socialism if not in all countries then at least in some? To these persons, the fundamental difference between the revolutionary Marxists and the reformists, which sums up and expresses all the other differences, lies in the negative reply made to the question by the former and the affirmative reply made by the latter.

After the Russian revolution of 1917, and the revolutions and counterrevolutions that immediately followed it in Europe, the Bolsheviks and the Communist International struck such heavy and effective blows at the traditional parliamentarist standpoint of reformism as to force it everywhere into a defensive retreat. After the Labour government of 1945, reformism is in its second youth. It is celebrating ideological triumphs – not only in Great Britain – which the defenders of the parliamentary road to socialism have not enjoyed for decades; and it is the reformists who now challenge the revolutionary Marxists with aggressive questions.

In our opinion, the challenge can be accepted by the Marxists without the slightest perturbation, especially if it is based upon the question as formulated above, because in the first place the question is put improperly and is therefore misleading and because, what is of greater moment, it is not the most important question facing the socialist movement. The problem raised by the Labour government is not only quite a different one but one of far greater and deeper significance, not only to the socialist movement but to the entire working class. The Marxian critique of reformism (as represented by the British Labour Party, in this case) will be valid or invalid depending upon the emphasis it places upon what we regard as the real problem or upon what has been raised – and raised misleadingly – as a secondary problem, at best, and a false one, at worst. But inasmuch as we have neither the desire nor the intention to evade even the subordinate or false problem, we will deal with it before taking up the really vital question.

It is an error to believe that the dividing line between revolutionary Marxism and reformism is the question of the “violent” or “insurrectionary” road to socialism versus the “parliamentary” or “peaceful” road. The Marxists never had, and being Marxists, could not have, an absolutist, dogmatic position on this question, applicable to all countries and under any conditions. What they have always contended is that one of the outstanding lessons taught by the history of centuries of class struggle is that ruling classes do not give up their power and privileges without violent resistance, just because they are condemned by history, just because they are an obstacle to human progress, just because they are called upon to abdicate by popular decision or the revolutionary class of the time. It is likewise true that, as is the case with all historical laws, this one has its exceptions and scholars would not have too much trouble in listing them. But it would be flat folly to be guided entirely by exceptions. Hence, the Marxists have always warned the working class that in the struggle for socialism to replace capitalist oppression, it is indispensable to note the lessons of history and to be prepared for the violent resistance which a doomed but desperate reaction would offer to thwart the will of the people for power with which to reorganize society. Being prepared means: such an organization of the working class, such a degree of consciousness, such a reliance upon itself and its organized strength, as would enable it to deal effectively with any violence that obsolete reaction might use to prevent the working class from taking political power by democratic means or to overturn the established power of the working class. To the silly reformist argument: “But suppose the democratically-ousted bourgeoisie does not try to thwart the people’s will by violence?” the revolutionist simply replies: “Then we have lost nothing by preparing for the worst, and socialism has gained enormously by the acquiescence of the bourgeoisie!” This is the position, briefly, of the Marxists, and to accuse them of the “advocacy of violence” is either preposterous or mendacious. In any case, the accusation sounds ... strange on the lips of the public prosecutors of those governments which build up huge armies and armaments on the ground that they are the only guarantee against war, for without being prepared, the enemy will surely destroy the peace and threaten invasion and annihilation upon all of the land!

But if it is only a question of the theoretical possibility (to say nothing of the desirability, which is taken for granted by all sane people) of achieving political power for socialist reconstruction by purely peaceful and parliamentary means, there is hardly a Marxist of note who has denied it. On the contrary, from Marx down to Lenin and Trotsky and the Comintern, they have frequently affirmed this possibility, given conditions especially favorable to the socialist proletariat. Marx acknowledged the possibility of a peaceful socialist revolution at least twice, especially with regard to England (without failing to indicate the possibility of a “slaveholders’ counter-revolution”). That was for the 19th century. Trotsky, as recently as 1926, in a withering criticism of British reformist parliamentarism, nevertheless pointed out the possibility of a peaceful transition to socialist power – again, given favorable conditions. He did not guarantee it, to be sure; only a political idiot would, and only a political idiot would act as though it were assured.

The British Labour government has already demonstrated the possibility of expropriating the bourgeoisie by parliamentary means. We do not hesitate to record this fact, while emphasizing the word “possibility”; nothing conclusive has yet been demonstrated, least of all anything that would permit comforting generalizations on the subject. Writing about the first MacDonald government of 1924, shortly after its ignominious downfall, Trotsky remarked that

... it can indeed be said that in the past MacDonald had a chance of greatly facilitating the transfer to socialism, by reducing to a minimum the disturbance of civil war. That was at the time of the Labour Party’s first coming to office. If MacDonald had immediately brought Parliament face to face with a decisive program (abolition of the monarchy and of the House of Lords, a heavy tax on capital, the nationalization of the most important means of production, etc.) and, having dissolved Parliament, had appealed with revolutionary determination to the country [1], he might have hoped to catch the possessing classes unawares to a certain degree, to give them no opportunity of gathering their forces, to shatter them with the pressure of the working masses, and to capture and renew the State apparatus before British Fascism had had time to come into formation, and thus to carry revolution through the gate of Parliament, to “legalize” it, and with firm hand to carry it to complete victory. But it is quite obvious that such a possibility is purely theoretical. For that another party with other leaders would have been necessary, and this in turn would have presupposed other circumstances. If we raise this theoretical possibility in reference to the past, it is only the more clearly to re- veat its impossibility in the future. (Where Is Britain Going? pp. 109f.)

The Attlee government started with an immeasurable advantage over its Labourite predecessors: a parliamentary majority all its own and a decisive one. It was established with a popular mandate which allowed of no two interpretations. It appealed to the people for support with the openly-declared intention of reorganizing Britain on a socialist basis. In this respect, the Tories were of signal assistance by their persistence in making socialism the issue in the 1945 electoral campaign. The result was a broad index of the profound changes wrought by the war-crisis of capitalism in the mind of the British working class. The same Churchill who, it is not exaggerated to say, was the popular war chief of all the classes, was not too ceremoniously rejected by the masses as their spokesman and leader in the task of reconstructing shattered Britain. The Liberal Party was wiped out almost as a parenthetical aside to the bitter defeat of the Tories.

The new Labour government did ot appeal to the people with “revolutionary determination.” For that – Trotsky remains right – “another party with other leaders” was and is required. Neither did it proceed to the abolition of the monarchy and the House of Lords. That too requires other leaders and ... “other circumstances.” (The picture of Attlee as Robespierre is almost as much of a strain on our fantasy as it would be on his nerve structure.) But it did proceed to carry out an economic program that was neither conceived of nor conceded by any Labour Party critic, friendly or hostile, twenty years earlier.

In the first five years of its existence, the Labour government has taken over ownership and control of some of the most decisive “commanding heights” of the economy, as Lenin liked to call it. It is true that the overly-prudent Labourites have arbitrarily set as their first goal the nationalization of no more than 20 per cent of the national economy. With the formal taking over of those sections of the iron and steel industry covered by the nationalization law for that economic sector, the 20 per cent goal will be more or less realized. But that percentage, which some critics regard derisively as trivial, is a statistical deception. Already nationalized are the coal industry, iron and steel, public utilities like gas and electricity, all civil aviation including overseas aviation, telecommunications, railroads, most other transportation, large sections of insurance, and the Bank of England. Not nationalized are such key industries as automobiles, machine-tools, the powerful chemical industry, cement, shipbuilding, and numerous others. But this division between the “20 per cent” and the “80 per cent” does not give an accurate picture of the division.

First, the 20 per cent figure is estimated in relation to the economy as a whole, from the biggest monopolistic sectors to the tiniest enterprises. There are sectors of the economy, embracing tiny and medium enterprises, which are statistically extensive even in the most advanced capitalist country, which no socialist government would, if it had its senses about it, proceed to nationalize overnight, or in a year or in some cases in ten years. The main immediate aim of any socialist government would be to take over precisely the “commanding heights” of the economy – “to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie” – and that means the basic, key industries and the nerve-centers of finance capital. If the already nationalized sector of British economy is calculated in relation to these “commanding heights,” the figure of 20 per cent would be increased very substantially. We do not have at hand the data that would show what the percentage would be in that relationship, which is the significant one, but a hint is given by the figures on gainfully-employed persons in Britain. Government employees, prior to the nationalization of steel, numbered more than 6,000,000. This figure included all administrative employees, about 1,000,000 men in the armed services, and all those employed in the nationalized industries. Six million men and women equals one-third of the total gainfully-employed in all of British industry, commerce, and government, big and small. With the taking over of iron and steel, the figure of one-third would be correspondingly increased.

Second, to the formal nationalization measures, the “20 per cent,” must be added what the bourgeoisie bitterly calls the “silent nationalizations.”

What this means may be gathered from a statement to the annual meeting of United Steel by its chairman, Sir Walter Benton Jones:

While I am talking about coke oven works and the carbonizing of coal, it will interest you to be informed of the extent to which in addition to coal gas the other products of coal carbonization are being silently nationalized. In round figures, 40,000,000 tons of coal are carbonized annually in the United Kingdom, of which the nationalized gas industry carbonizes rather more than 50 per cent, and the nationalized coal mining industry carbonizes about 20 per cent, leaving about 30 per cent in the hands of free enterprise of which the iron and steel industry carbonizes more than 30 per cent. If the iron and steel industry were to be nationalized something less than 10 per cent would be left under free enterprise and the nationalized industries would have in their own hands nearly the whole of the products of coal carbonizing, that is, the coke, coal gas, fertilizers, motor spirit, tar and many finer chemical products, including bases of dyes and plastics.

To this statement, Prof. Robert A. Brady, a meticulous and informed left-wing American critic of the Labour government, whose objections to it are by no means always wrong, makes this interesting commentary:

In addition to those mentioned by Jones, the government has nationalized parts of such industries as ordnance, engineering, building materials, hotels, restaurants and catering, wholesaling (“bulk purchase” of cotton and of various overseas supplies through agencies controlled by the Ministry of Food), land, housing, theaters and other places of amusement, etc. Furthermore, most of the nationalization acts contain definite provisions allowing the board or corporation in question to manufacture parts or all of the supplies required for its own needs. For the coal, electricity and gas industries, tele-communications, and the railroad, canal and docks and harbor sections of transport, this could mean nationalizing, in effect, all of certain lines of supplies. Finally it is also true that all of the acts give the appropriate Minister powers of interpretation of the authority granted him which could greatly extend the area of any nationalized undertaking without requiring further Parliamentary authorization ... When to such “silent and ragged-edge” nationalization is added steel and the large sections of the engineering, metal finishing and distributing industries and trade that go with it, it is clear that the 20 per cent limitation on the area to be nationalized has already been exceeded.

With the nationalization of iron and steel (even though it does not cover this industry completely), the tendency toward what might be called the self-expansion of nationalization necessarily becomes more irresistible. It was pointed out in the debate on the nationalization bill by Capt. Lyttelton, a Tory M.P. whose directorship in the huge armaments firm of Vickers seems to incline him toward what the British bourgeoisie, too, now euphemistically calls “free enterprise,” that the steel industry

... ramifies into almost every crevice of British industry. It goes into the chemical trade ... into the production of sulphuric acid, sulphate of ammonia and creosote. It goes into the electrical industry, in the manufacture of welding equipment; into structural steel, in the manufacture,, of things like the Sydney Bridge; it goes into the railway equipment industry, in the manufacture of axles, tyres and wheels for rolling stock. It ramifies in every direction and finally, of course, it gets into the miscellaneous industries where we find that the Government will be engaged in making umbrella frames and florists’ wire ... [2]

Another Tory M.P., who has no problem in determining where his principal ends and his principles begin, for the two are identical with him – it is Sir Andrew Duncan, a director of the Iron and Steel Federation- stated in the debate on the steel nationalization schedule that “under these proposals it is also true to say that the State will secure a foothold in 101 other industries and will own firms whose interest in iron and steel is a very small portion of their activities.”

No wonder the bourgeoisie made, and even now still makes, such a furious fight against the nationalization of steel. There is no point after this, found the Manchester Guardian, “at which the advance toward the extinction of private capital in British industry could be halted.” This statement was repeated by Anthony Eden in the Opposition’s summation of its case. For the bourgeoisie, it is a gloomy conclusion.

Third, to the nationalization measures, formal, silent or ragged- edge, must also be added the extremely extensive controls in the hands of the government. The fact that some of these controls were inherited by it from preceding Tory governments, is of little importance. They are now exercized in a different economic context, for different economic goals, and are therefore of different social significance. They are well summarized by Brady (whose invaluable work is reviewed elsewhere in this issue), who is highly aware of their importance:

Under the Foreign Exchange Act it [the government] is in a position to control gold movements, the inward and outward flow of investment funds, and the balance of payments. It is in a position, that is to say, partially to insulate the national economy from the more random vagaries of international price changes and goods movements. By its direct control over the Bank of England, it may now coordinate management of the public debt with control over the supply of money, short-term credit and the level of interest rates. This may be implemented by adding the power to give instructions to the joint banks in particular, and to the City in general, to regulate rediscount policy and to control open-market operations.

Long-term credit and investment control possesses a rather elaborate machinery. Through the Capital Issues Committee it is able to influence, if not actually to veto, the amount, terms, times of issuance and prices at which private investment securities are listed on the stock exchange. Through its power to supervise the issuance of government and municipal securities it may add public to private finance. Furthermore, it can guide (the supply of special types of large issues for reorganization purposes through its control over F.C.I. [Finance Corporation for Industry], of small borrowings through I.C.F.C. [Industrial and Commercial Finance Corporation], and of agriculture through the Agricultural Mortgage Corporation. Supplementary controls are implied in the establishment of special machinery – such as the Film Finance Corporation recently devised for aiding the domestic movie industry – for supplying funds for activities deemed of special importance to the national economy and as a consequence of the government’s close supervision of unit trust schemes. Finally, the government controls the Public Works Loan Board, and the Treasury serves as financial advisor to the various government corporations set up under the several nationalization acts and falling under the auspices of the Colonial Office (Overseas Development Corporation) and the Food Ministry (e.g., the African Ground Nuts Scheme for developing tropical estates to supply Britain with edible oils from peanuts).

Similarly, the government can exercize some indirect control over savings through its management of the Postal Savings System; direct control over prices of all rationed goods, indirect price control over unrationed goods, and by its system of subsidies and bulk buying may hold down market prices of certain classes of rationed and unrationed consumer goods and over income through wage control, taxes, and other internal revenue controls, and import duties controls. Supplementary to all such controls is the government’s capacity under extension of wartime authority to establish materials priorities for the more important raw supplies such as metals, lumber, fuel and power, for all industries, and man-power supply by a combination of its powers to allocate labor directly and to determine the amount and location of housing and supplementary living facilities.

It is only in the light of these considerations that the “20 per cent” figure can be understood for what it really signifies. Even with the “20 per cent,” the Labour government would be able to proceed seriously to reconstruct Britain on a socialist basis. Severe though his criticisms are – sometimes they become lifelessly pedantic, at other times they miss the real point of necessary criticism – Brady acknowledges that “it cannot be gainsaid that the Labour government is in a position more or less fully to coordinate finance with any over-all and long-view planning of the economy as a whole – if and when any such planning may be forthcoming – without the necessity, at least at the outset, of creating any more new financial machinery at all.”

If the Labour government is in this position – and we believe Brady is entirely right on this score – it is due precisely to the extent that it has expropriated the British bourgeoisie. This expropriation – which is, simply, depriving the bourgeoisie of its ownership of property in the means of production and exchange, depriving the capitalists of their capital – has taken place in a perfectly legal way. The British bourgeoisie has not stinted denunciation of the propriety and wisdom of the Labour government’s nationalization measures; but it has not challenged them on legal grounds. That the bourgeoisie has been “compensated” for the property that was nationalized, does not change the fact that it was expropriated, and compensation in itself is in no wise in conflict with the principles of socialism or the interests of the working class. From our point of view, the British bourgeoisie, like our own, has drawn more than adequate compensation for its ownership of the means of production and the exploitation of the wage slaves which it made possible, in the colossal pile of profits it has accumulated for centuries. The principles of equity and morality entitle it to not a shilling more. From any socialist standpoint, even if the most benevolent construction is placed upon the policy of the Labour government, the compensation which it finally did allow the expropriated capitalists is much more than too generous. Take only the example of the coal industry, which the mine owners ruined so systematically for the past few decades. It was estimated that the total capital investment in the British coal industry amounted to 130,000,000 pounds sterling. Against this, the government agreed to pay the mine owners compensation to the amount of 164,000,000 pounds sterling. This in face of the fact, adduced without challenge in the House, that in the twenty years between 1893 and 1913 alone, some 332,000,000 pounds sterling were paid out of the industry to its owners in the form of profits and royalties, or about two-and-a-half times the amount of the invested capital! It is a very handsome price to pay for the non-violent resistance of the bourgeoisie.

Whether bourgeois property is acquired by a workers’ government through outright confiscation or by compensation, is not of decisive import from the standpoint of socialism, for as Trotsky once wrote, “broadly speaking, there is no ground for rejection on principle of the purchase of the land, factories, and workshops.” Compensation, especially when it is as munificent as in the British case, places a heavy burden upon the already loaded shoulders of the working class in its painful march to socialism, and is generally speaking an obstacle to the socialist reorganization of the economy (to say nothing of providing the bourgeoisie with the financial means for continuing its opposition to this reorganization). But a bloody civil war is no less a burden and an obstacle, and as was showed in Russia after 1917, it can prove enormously costly, and not in war casualties alone. If, therefore, it were possible to pay the bourgeoisie blackmail and buy it off from obstructing the march to socialism by plunging the land into a bloodbath, then, all else remaining equal, compensation – even very generous compensation – would unquestionably be the lesser evil by far. The entire question is one to be resolved by practical calculation.

But, at least generally speaking, the same is also true from the standpoint of the bourgeoisie. It is undergoing the process of expropriation. Compensation is infinitely preferable, to it, than out-and-out confiscation. But to continue as owners of capital – the only condition that makes possible and assures the preservation of a capitalist class and of capitalists – is infinitely preferable to compensation in the form of heavily-taxable money which is not at all the same thing as capital, or even in the form of non- transferable bonds of a government which can recall them. In 1917, the Bolsheviks demanded only workers’ control of industry. They not only did not propose to expropriate the Russian bourgeoisie but pledged themselves to assuring it a “legitimate” profit. Yet the bourgeoisie resorted to violent civil war against the new workers’ government and, by that act and not by virtue of a pre-determined policy of the Bolsheviks, precipitated the wave of nationalization of indus try which culminated a couple of years after the revolution. Guided, in part, by this far from negligible experience, Trotsky wrote a quarter of a century ago:

There can therefore be no doubt that by the time the Labour Party is successful in the elections [successful in obtaining a parliamentary majority], the Conservatives will have at their back not only the official State apparatus, but also unofficial bands of Fascists. They will begin their provocative and bloody work even before Parliament succeeds in getting to the first reading of the bill for the nationalization of the coal mines.

The Parliament of the Labourite majority has gotten considerably beyond the first reading of the bill for nationalizing coal. We are now past the nationalization of steel, against which the bourgeoisie and its parties made such a desperate stand. Yet they have not resorted to civil war or violence. Why not? With all the respect due the smug principles of Fabianism, we must decline to believe that the relative forbearance of the British bourgeoisie is due to the fact that it has received monetary compensation for its properties. For it, too, the question is one to be resolved by practical calculation, taking into account as objectively as possible the relationship of class forces at every stage. The question before it is: how to prevent further losses of economic (and therefore social) power and to recoup the losses already suffered. The two ways between which it can choose are: of resorting at this stage to the violent overturn of the Labourite workers’ government by a reactionary minority, or of remaining within the framework of legality and fighting in that way to restore a government of its own which would, regardless of all sorts of ambiguous Tory promises now, restore private property intact and do away with all this nonsense of health insurance, housing programs and the like? In the person of its only reliable party, the Tories, the British bourgeoisie has chosen the latter way.

The parliamentary road back to power is a risky one for the bourgeoisie. The Labour Party has not exhausted its possibilities, not by any means, not so far as its ranks are concerned, and not even so far as its present leadership is concerned. Because it lost heavily in the second post-war election is not an infallible sign that it will continue to lose and end up, after the next election, as a parliamentary minority. The only safe thing to say about that is that while it is not excluded neither is it guaranteed. From a third parliamentary defeat, the British bourgeoisie would have much less possibility of regaining its power by legal means than ever before; as for its economic power, the Labourites, even under an unchanged leadership, would undoubtedly, in our opinion, make even deeper inroads into that, for reasons that will be mentioned later. But the fact remains that a parliamentary victory for the Tories is not out of the question.

It is risky, we repeat. To continue, meanwhile, to accept the economic incursions of the Labourites is, for the bourgeoisie, an evil. But an armed contest is also an evil and in the present situation a greater evil, a far greater evil. That, from the standpoint of a bourgeoisie often classed as the shrewdest and best-trained of its kind in the world, is a wise judgment. To adopt a policy of precipitating a civil war would be first-rate folly for the bourgeoisie and a sure sign that it has lost its head even before being led to the scaffold. Any such attempt would, overnight, fuse together the entire British working class into an aggressive, iron phalanx, possessing considerable military skill and experience. It would have on its side not only the sympathy but the active aid of considerable sections of the middle classes. More important, the working class of the entire world, regardless of present political divisions, would be as one in its support of the forces of the Labour government. A Tory civil war would be a boon to Stalinist Russia in the tensely critical world situation, and it would not hesitate to support the Labourites, for its own reasons, to be sure. Upon whom could the Tories rely for battle-forces? The British army? At best, on a small minority of that armed force. It is in the army that the heaviest pro-Labour party vote was cast. The British Fascists? They are the most completely discredited “movement” in Britain, and as a force they are utterly negligible. It may be different tomorrow, but that is how it is today. The European bourgeoisie? It would be impotent to contribute anything material to aid a British bourgeois armed struggle. The American bourgeoisie? That’s much more serious, of course, but even it could not give direct military aid to its British compeers in such a struggle. There too the situation may be different tomorrow, but that is how it is today.

In a civil war, the bourgeoisie not only has more chances of losing than of winning, but in the event that it lost the military struggle it would be absolutely certain to lose everything and to lose it forever. The realization of all this undoubtedly has entered into the calculations of the British bourgeoisie and helped determine its course. These same considerations, on the other hand, offer the British working class and its party a most exceptional opportunity of reconstructing British society on socialist foundations by parliamentary means, by peaceful means, with a tiny minimum of social setbacks and losses. Every Marxist, every socialist, must strain his efforts to seize and realize the opportunity. It is a golden one. Its like may not occur again for a long time.

We have not, we hope, indicated by the foregoing that the present British workers’ government is a genuinely socialist government or that it is establishing socialism. To the extent that it is nationalizing the economy, the Labour government is indeed expropriating the bourgeoisie. But that is not at all the same thing as the establishment of socialism. Socialism does not advocate a change in the economic structure of society for its own sake. It has no interest at all in changes of that kind. It advocates the economic change only in order to make possible such a radical change in social relations as will free the producer from domination by the product, as will free the working class and therewith society of class rule, class exploitation, and class oppression in any of its forms, old or new. Whatever leads in that direction is progressive and socialistic in tendency; whatever leads away from it is reactionary and anti-socialist. While it has nationalized various branches of industry, the Labour government has not proceeded to establish those new social relations to which we have referred. The Labourite leadership is not being charged with having failed to establish these new relations, for no human force could do that in one night or one year or one decade. What could and should be done is to take those steps which are, at once, possible and practicable and which lead toward the establishment of socialism, which are indeed the indispensable pre-condition for socialism.

Socialism is different from all other social orders by the outstanding fact that, first, the producer is not distinguished from other members of the community by class divisions based on economic and political privileges which one class enjoys and the other does not, and second, by that token, is a producer who is master of the conditions of production. Accordingly, a workers’ government that is moving toward socialism is different from any other workers’ government (to say nothing of a capitalist government) by the outstanding fact that the workers, as distinguished from still-existing other classes and social groups, are themselves becoming the masters of the conditions of production in the economy which is no-longer-fully capitalist but not-yet-fully socialist. Since capitalism cannot be replaced by socialism overnight, there is a transition period between the two. This transition is the period of the dictatorship of the proletariat which can take any number of forms. At bottom, this is nothing but the period during which the working class directly acquires control over production and distribution, trains itself in their operation and management, gradually reduces all economic problems to problems of accountancy and control, and by learning to rule all the economy, learns to rule itself and therewith to abolish all form of political rule. If that is not the essence and bloodstream of the period, then no matter what else is done and no matter what is said, there will be no socialism nor even a movement in its direction.

It is primarily and mainly in this respect that the present Labour government stands inexcusably indicted from the socialist standpoint. The fact that the British workers still have a low standard of living, that they have little to eat and poor shelter over their heads, could be overcome in part even under the present government, but only demagogy or ignorance would place the primary responsibility for that situation upon its shoulders. The fact that the British workers must work hard in order to raise the level of production, is likewise not a criticism that would fall primarily upon the shoulders of the Labour government, whose shortcomings in this field must be compared with what it inherits from the capitalist regime. What does fall entirely upon the government is the responsibility for keeping the working class – not its officialdom, but the workers themselves – at a cold distance from management and control of the nationalized industries, let alone the industries of “free enterprise.” The Bolsheviks – so disdained by the Labourite leadership – did not contemplate so rapid a pace of nationalization as the British have undertaken and as the Bolsheviks themselves were forced by uncontrollable events to undertake. But not only did they advocate, they actually instituted complete workers’ control of industry, so that the Russian worker actually was and actually felt himself to be master in the house. More than any other single act, this one unmistakably defined the Bolshevik regime as a genuinely socialist workers’ government. The British worker does not feel himself to be master in the house, nor is he. While the old master has been removed or hobbled, the new master is not the workingman or the associated workingmen, but the workers’ officialdom, the Labourite bureaucracy.

The “new question” posed by the experience of the Labour government is not, then, whether socialism can be established by parliamentary means or only by extraparliamentary means. It is this: Can the working class reach socialism only by its own efforts, by its direct class rule over the economic and political life of the country, or can socialism be attained without workers’ control and simply by an expropriation of the bourgeoisie carried out, one way or another, under the control and direction of a more or less benevolent workers’ bureaucracy? The spread of Stalinism has raised the same question in one way; the Labourite government in another way. If it is not the most vital question of our time, it is certainly one of the most vital. Not a few Marxists have abandoned the basic analyses and convictions of the founders and teachers of scientific socialism by replying, in effect, in the affirmative: Yes, the road to socialism lies or may lie through the domination of society by a workers’ bureaucracy or a bureaucracy that arose out of the labor movement. They have concluded that the Stalinist revolution is the socialist revolution, that Stalinist society is progressive, that the Titoist state is socialist, and the like. As for ourselves, we remain unreconstructed in our belief that the emancipation of the working class, that is, socialism, is the task of the working class itself and of no one else. The experience of the Labourite government, especially when considered, as it must be, in the light of the social and historical significance of the rise of Stalinism, has not modified our belief in the slightest degree and we see no grounds in the realities of British society to warrant such a modification.

That the general position of the British working class has improved under the Labour government is undeniable. That the general position of the British bourgeoisie has deteriorated is equally undeniable. But what has been most significantly strengthened and improved is the economic and political position of the labor officialdom. It is they, first and foremost, who have benefited from the economic and political changes effected by the Labour government, just as it is they and not the working class itself that have effected the changes.

This implies that classical reformism itself has changed. That is correct. It corresponds to the profound changes that capitalism has undergone. Classical reformism – as exemplified by the old German Social Democracy and the Labour Party of the MacDonald days – did not think of expropriating the bourgeoisie and actually abolishing the rule of capital in the economy; or if it did think of it, it never went further than to translate its thoughts into hollow public speeches and writings. The German Social Democracy, when it had complete control of the country, spent years in solemn study of the conditions of the coal industry, published its findings in weighty scientific tomes, under the direction of Karl Kautsky himself; but it never nationalized the coal industry. If the MacDonald governments even talked about nationalization, the tones were too faint to be remembered today. The contrast with the present Labour government is clearly evident. The classical Social Democracy was a bureaucratically dominated product of the rise of capitalist imperialism. Its ideology and social interests were shaped in the period of that rise. It drew its economic sustenance from the vast super-profits accumulated by the big imperialist states. It acquired a stake – modest but nonetheless a stake – in the preservation of capitalism, that is, of private property in the last analysis. It opposed the extreme bourgeois reaction which would wipe out the labor movement that was the mass basis for its privileged economic and social position. It opposed the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism which would bring the working class to power and abolish, in a socialist way, the special bureaucratic privileges it enjoyed. Hence, its basic attachment to capitalism, to capitalist prosperity, to capitalist democracy, to capitalist colonial policy, to reforms which would solidify its mass basis and add to its own privileges.

A very excellent example of this reformism, in the life and in the flesh, and in a specific national form, of course, is to be found right here in the United States: the American labor officialdom. Its like exists nowhere else on earth today because there is no longer any capitalist power comparable to the American. The other capitalist regimes have collapsed or are always on the brink of collapse, economic and political. The British is included. The empire of old is at an end. At an end, too, are the huge super-profits which corrupted the British working class, primarily its officialdom, for generations (Britain is, for example, in debt to India today!). In one country after another – again Britain included – private property is less and less the basis for national economic strength and prosperity, and this becomes more and more obvious even to the labor aristocracy, even to the labor bureaucracy. Ideology lags notoriously behind social reality. In France, where capitalist decay is further advanced than in England, the ideology of the reformist officialdom, or what is left of it, has not changed significantly; it acts and thinks as if it still had the old stake in the preservation of private property. In England, however, the ideology of the labor officialdom has kept much more active pace with the changes in the historical position of British capitalism. Compare British capitalism of 1945 with British capitalism of 1924, and you get a fairly adequate measure of the change in the Labour Party (and, for that matter, in the working class as a whole) from the days of MacDonald’s rule to those of Attlee and Bevin.

It is not of course a question of the personal sincerity or integrity of this or that official, which we would like to believe is of the highest quality. It is a question of social forces and interests and ideologies. The official slogan of “Socialism Now!” means, in practice, “Socialism for the Officialdom,” or “Socialism Directed by the Officialdom in the Very Best Interests of Labour.” This means no socialism at all. But it does mean a different attitude toward private property and capitalist rule of the economy. Yesterday’s reformist officialdom, the Labourite bureaucracy of today, wants to dispossess the present property- owners, wants to take over industry, wants economic and political control of the country, even if its training dictates Fabian prudence and gradualism in achieving its wants. It may think it wants it for the working class; it doubtlessly does think so. But Marx in his time, and Freud in his, taught us not to judge a man by what he thinks of himself – a man or a social group – but by what he does and by the objective effect of his acts. The present officialdom wants to dispossess the old property-owners, but not in order to install the free rule of the working class. Socialist democracy, genuine proletarian democracy, would give the bureaucrats (we speak not of this or that individual, but of a specific social stratum) even less in the form of special position, privilege and power than it enjoyed in the heyday of capitalism. That is why in Britain today, unlike the Russia of 1917, the undermining of the power of the capitalists is not accompanied by an extension of democratic, socialistic workers’ power.

An adequate treatment of the foreign policy of the Labour government is of key importance [3], but it must await another occasion. Here it must suffice to point out that the very nature of the change in British reformism determines the fact that its foreign policy is essentially imperialistic. It is no more the task or the concern of the labor officialdom to liberate the colonial peoples than to emancipate its own working class. Its task and concern are to reorganize Britain, and as much of the empire as its broken forces enable it to hold together, in its own interests. It is true that the Labourites agreed to grant India national independence. But that was imposed upon them by the Indians. In Malaya, Labourite foreign policy shows itself to be as outrageously imperialistic, rotten and barbarous as the French in Indo-China. It may be freely granted that the Labour government’s foreign policy is, on the whole, much more democratic than Stalinist Russia’s, but it is not one whit less imperialistic in its fundamental character. The new rulers and would-be rulers have little interest in preserving the power of the British capitalist class; but they have shown active interest in preserving whatever colonial power they could in the interest of Britain, that is, the British government, that is, themselves.

Five years of the new Labour government have brought the country and its working class to a fork in the road. If the present basic economic and political trend were to continue uninterrupted in Britain, the means of production and exchange would all end up in the hands of the state and the state in the hands of an all-powerful bureaucracy. Beginning in a different way, with different origins, along different roads, at a different pace, but in response to the same basic social causes, Britain would then develop toward the type of totalitarian collectivism which is the distinguishing mark of Stalinist society, Mr. Attlee’s denunciations of Russia as a “bureaucratic-collectivist state” to the contrary notwithstanding. Fortunately, we are a long way from that yet, a long, long way. Distinguishing periods of development and judging the pace at which changes take place, taking into account conflicting social forces and judging their interplay – these are of the essence of socialist politics. If we speak above of the present trend, it is only conditional, only as abstracted from other trends and forces, and in order to indicate what this particular trend is so that, knowing and understanding it, it is easier to resist it. It would be preposterous, and worse, suicidal, to take the beginning for the end, the thread for the strand. Is it necessary to mention more than this one fact: Stalinism not only took years to come fully to power but it was able to reach it only because the working class movement in Russia was so deeply crushed, demoralized, passive, exhausted, whereas the British working class movement is only beginning to feel its power, is strong and vigorous, is inspired with socialist hopes and convictions, is impatient with its government because it does not move fast and firmly enough toward working-class socialism, and above all is still in a full position to debate its problems freely, to express itself openly, to make changes, even basic changes, without having to fight a ubiquitous and omnipotent police state?

What is or should be overwhelmingly important for the socialist movement, for the serious British socialists in particular, is that there is a workers’ government in power in Britain which is so constructed, and which is based on such a popular proletarian movement, as makes it possible by entirely democratic means to transform the government into a genuinely socialist workers’ regime. If this were accomplished, the consequences would be breathtaking. The great wheels of history which have sunk so deep into the mud of retrogression for a quarter of a century would be lifted on to smooth dry road and race forward at a tremendous speed. The transformation is possible, the opportunity is golden.

As far back as 1922, the leader of the Communist International – when it had a leader and not a police chief – spoke words at the Fourth Congress which are not inappropriate today:

We are now having elections in England. The point will probably not be reached in these elections, but theoretically it is quite proper to imagine a situation in which a workers’ government arrives which is similar to the Australian workers’ government and by its contents is a liberal workers’ government. Such a liberal workers’ government could, in the present situation in England, become a point of departure for the revolutionization of the country. That could happen. But by itself it would be nothing more than a liberal workers’ government. We, the Communists, are now voting in England for the Labour Party. That is the same as voting for a liberal workers’ government. The Communists in England are compelled to vote in the present situation for a liberal workers’ government. That’s an absolutely correct tactic. Why? Because, objectively that will be a step forward, because a liberal government in England would best prepare the way for the bankruptcy of capitalism. We have already seen in Russia, in the Kerensky days, that the position of capitalism was shattered, even though the liberals were agents of capitalism. Plekhanov called the Mensheviks in the period from February to October, 1917, semi-Bolsheviks. We thought this was wrong, they were no Bolsheviks, not even quarter-Bolsheviks. We said that because we were in heated struggle against them and because we saw their treachery toward the proletariat. But objectively Plekhanov was right. Objectively, the Menshevik government was best calculated to make a hash out of capitalism, to make its position impossible for it. Our party comrades, who were arrayed against the Mensheviks in struggle, were then still unable to see this fact.

You stand in conflict against one another. You see only that they are traitors to the working class. They are not enemies of the bourgeoisie, but when the weapon of the bourgeoisie is forced into their hands for a time, they can take many steps which are directed objectively against the bourgeois state. Therefore, in England we support the liberal workers’ government and also the Labour Party. The English bourgeoisie is also right when it says: the workers’ government begins with Clynes and may end with the left wing.

While some of what Zinoviev said then is not applicable, most of what he said is far more valid today than it was in 1922. The British working class is far stronger today than it was then; it is more determined now to realize socialism than it was then. Its discontentment with the official leadership is an excellent sign of good political health, a fact which is only emphasized by its refusal to turn to the Stalinist agency in Britain. The Labourite undermining of capitalism is far more advanced than anything done by the Russian Mensheviks in 1917. It is true that in organized left wing does not exist today even to the extent that it existed in Britain thirty years ago. But the components for a powerful left wing exist in numbers that are sufficient and more than sufficient. Here we venture once again the opinion that the socialist who remains outside the ranks of the Labour Party today is committing, to put it gently, a gross political misdemeanor. To enter the Labour Party as a closed faction, especially a “secret” faction, is, if that is possible, even worse. To work within it for the “Defense of the Soviet Union” and as apologists for Titoism, is a criminal objective that requires the special political genius which the “official Trotskyists” have made their distinguishing attribute. The task is to create, to assemble, a broad socialist left wing (not to recruit a dozen members to a sterile secret sect which does not even have the virtue of being theoretically or politically correct) which aims openly and loyally to change the course of the party, to win it for its views, to choose a leadership corresponding to them.

The realization of this task is not guaranteed, but all the possibilities for realizing it exist. There are any number of instances where a conservative workers’ party was transformed into a genuine socialist party. No one can prove that the Labour Party alone is inherently immune from such a transformation, and no one is obliged to lose his time listening to such “proof.” The job is to work at the transformation, without prejudice, without skepticism, but with the sustaining conviction that the working class, the present British working class in particular, while it refuses to engage in futile exercises like abandoning its own party to form a small but perfect one, is nevertheless capable of making great and profound changes, of performing miracles, of proving that its ancestors of the days of Chartism and even of the General Strike are its very own.

We have already indicated where we think one road away from the fork can lead to in Britain. There is another road, and no insurmountable obstacles block it. It is the working- class road to socialist democracy. Everything depends upon the British working class. It can make a proletarian Britain the great independent rallying center that proletarian Russia was a generation ago, a center capable of challenging and triumphing over the forces represented by Washington and Moscow. It is possible to do this, now, without violent convulsions, democratically, peacefully. What the British working class will do in the promising days ahead depends, in no small measure, upon the clearheadedness, the sympathetic understanding, the freedom from outlived dogmas and the enthusiasm of all proletarian socialists, the British in particular. The possibilities challenge them.

* * *


1. As already noted, the MacDonald government was a minority in Parliament. Trotsky was referring to an appeal to the country by means of a new election which would return a Labour Party majority to Parliament and thereby annul its dependence upon a legislative veto by the Tory- Liberal combination.

2. For the British Tory to ride over government-made railroad wheels is already enough of a strain, it becomes unendurable when he contemplates protecting himself from inclement weather with an umbrella whose ribs are not an authentic product of his inalienable right to freedom of enterprise.

3. As is the related question of the specifically Labourite “theory” (unformulated and unvoiced but nonetheless real) of “socialism in one country,” which pervades the thinking and action of the British government.

Max Shachtman
Marxist Writers’

Last updated on 20 November 2018