MIA: History: ETOL: Document: Workers Party/Independent Socialist League: Neither Capitalism nor Socialism

Workers Party/Independent Socialist League

E. Haberkern & Arthur Lipow (eds.)

Neither Capitalism nor Socialism


Max Shachtman

Aspects of the Labor Government


Neither Capitalism nor Socialism, pp. 235–239.
New International, Vol. XVII No. 1, January–February 1951.


As the long postwar boom winds down with the consequent re-emergence of chronic mass unemployment and stagflation, the growth of bureaucratic collectivist tendencies at the expense of classical reformist socialism is likely to continue.

The “New Question” posed by the experience of the Labor government is not, then, whether socialism can be established by parliamentary means or only by extra-parliamentary 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 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 no one else. The experience of the Labor 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 Labor Party of the MacDonald days – 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, 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. 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 and 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 Russia in 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. [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.] 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 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 workingclass socialism, and above all is still in a 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 deeply into the mud of retrogression for a quarter of a century would be lifted on to a smooth dry road and race forward at a tremendous speed. The transformation is possible, the opportunity is golden ...

Last updated on 8 November 2020