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Dead souls

(October 1983)

From Socialist Review, No. 168, October 1993.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Labourism and the English Genius
Gregory Elliott
Verso £11.99

The sorry state of Labour’s current ideas make you want to scream. The desperate rush to trail Tory policies and to praise the market seems never ending. Just as right wingers fall out over whether to tax or cut spending, Gordon Brown declares his undying opposition to raising taxes. Ann Taylor has joined the Tory attack on student grants by claiming that they are a handout to the middle classes. David Blunkett describes supporting single mothers as ‘defending the indefensible’.

But we cannot explain this by looking at the politics or personalities of these individuals. As Gregory Elliott’s new book demonstrates, this is a phase they are going through. Unfortunately it doesn’t seem that Labour is going to grow out of it.

There have been, says Elliott, three phases in this century which have marked not just Labour in Britain but all the Socialist and Labour Parties internationally: ‘the adoption of a reformist strategy for socialism (up to 1945); the retraction of socialism in favour of regulated welfare capitalism (1945–75); the abandonment or attenuation of the latter in the 1970s and 1980s.’

At every stage of its development, Labour was marked by a commitment to preserving the British state, maintaining a parliamentary monarchy and, well into the postwar period, hanging on to many of the remnants of the British Empire.

Its reforms, most notably those of the 1945 government, were designed not to challenge the rule of capital, but to make it more efficient while ameliorating some of its worst excesses. Nationalisation was restricted to those industries such as railways and mines which attracted little private investment and needed massive injections of state funding to make them profitable. The health service was set up while making big concessions to doctors and consultants about their autonomy.

It was a Labour government which introduced the most savage cuts ever, in 1976, at the behest of the international Monetary Fund. Since then, Labour’s successive electoral failures have been matched by successive abandonment of its commitment to welfare and equality.

Elliott describes all this well. He is also highly critical of attempts to turn Labour leftwards in the early 1980s around the campaign for constitutional reform and Benn for deputy. ‘For all the heady talk of a “new model Labour Party” foreshadowing a “mass socialist party”, the rather more humdrum reality was a hollow shell occupied by the “rank and file democracy” of some 50,000 or fewer activists’. The Bennites as much as the right wing relied on the ‘dead souls’ of the trade union block vote to win victory.

But his real scorn is reserved for the ever rightward moving leadership under Neil Kinnock, seeking to occupy the middle ground which ‘was forever shifting, under its feet, further rightwards – dragging the party along in its train, and therewith onto hostile territory, where its hasty and ill-organised manoeuvres proved no match for an enemy deploying on home ground and encouraged, by Labour’s retreat towards it, to extract further concessions.’

Much of Elliott’s analysis would be shared by many readers of this Review. However there is a weakness at the core of his argument which prevents him from drawing any useful conclusions. He believes that British society is an archaic system dominated by commercial and financial capital, in which manufacturing capital has long been subservient.

Calls for socialism are, he says, impractical and should be replaced instead by a series of constitutional changes which would allow a proper democracy to flourish. This would presumably be a stage towards some form of democratic socialism.

It is, however, a utopian project. Despite differences of interest between sections of the capitalist class, their class unity is much greater than anything which divides them.

Any substantial constitutional reforms – especially the abolition of the monarchy and the House of Lords – would be opposed by the vested interests of the rich and powerful represented within that capitalist class. Such reforms could not be implemented without taking on aspects of class struggle aimed at overthrowing the whole system.

Elliott roots Labour’s failing in its appeal to a mythical and imperialist ‘nation’ rather than class. What a pity that he too falls into the trap of believing that somehow reforming the constitution can begin to overcome the contradictions of British capitalism.

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