Tribune, 12 April 1991
The left must face up to the fact that the traditional socialist programme has had its day, writes Paul Anderson
What does it mean to be a socialist in Britain today? For the first 60 or 70 years of this century, it was reasonably easy to answer that question. Socialism, for the overwhelming majority of its adherents, meant state ownership of the means of production, state planning of the economy and a state welfare system “from cradle to grave”.
There were, of course, other currents which emphasised non-state forms of social ownership and planning – the co-operative movement, the syndicalists of the second decade of the century and the guild socialists who took up many of their ideas. But they had limited influence, particularly after the Bolshevik revolution had provided the world with an example of “nationalisation-and-planning” socialism that seemed to work economically, whatever its other faults. When socialists differed (and of course they disagreed about a lot) it was not usually over the core features of a socialist economy. The debate among socialists was about the means of achieving socialism and about what else socialism entailed apart from nationalisation and planning.
Most socialists were democrats and gradualists who believed the Labour Party was the vehicle for socialist change: it was the party of the working class and was at least nominally committed to socialism, even if its basic reason for existence was simply to pursue trade union interests in parliament and, from the thirties onwards, its economic theories owed more to John Maynard Keynes than to any socialist economist. A sizeable minority, believing for a variety of reasons that Labour was incapable of introducing socialism, opted for parties to its Left that were more thoroughly socialist and, more often than not, revolutionary in rhetoric if not in practice. It was not until the late fifties that the consensus about what constituted the core of socialism began to crack even a little.
The 1945-51 Labour governments had introduced a wide range of measures that were in line with socialist thinking, notably nationalisation of key industries and a comprehensive welfare state. But, far from heralding the beginning of a new socialist age, the nationalised industries and the welfare state instead became key elements of a revitalised mixed economy capitalism in which state planning played a major role. By the mid-fifties, revisionist intellectuals on the Labour right were arguing that Keynesianism allowed the state to control the economy without resort to further nationalisation. Progressive taxation policy could take care of reducing inequality, they said. Socialism was obsolete.
Most defenders of the socialist faith, particularly those in the Labour and Communist parties, countered that the revisionists underestimated the task: nationalisation and planning had not been taken far enough, they argued, and Labour conference (though not the leadership) agreed. But a small number on the left began, cautiously at first, to raise questions about the model of nationalisation that the 1945-51 Labour government had adopted, in particular its lack of any concern for workers’ control and its alienating bureaucracy.
For a while, however, the socialist consensus remained largely intact, with demands for workers’ control (or at least participation) added to the end of the traditional programme. The 1964-70 Labour governments presided over economic stagnation and increasing trade union wage militancy, and did little to shake the conviction of most socialists that the answer to Britain’s problems was more nationalisation and planning. After Labour lost office, it swung sharply to the left. Labour’s Programme 1973, on which the party was returned to office in 1974, was a traditional socialist document, stating Labour’s aim as being “to bring about a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people and their families”.
Of course, nothing of the sort happened. The 1974-79 Labour governments were plagued by economic crisis and a continuing failure to cope with trade union wage militancy. The left, defeated in the 1975 referendum over membership of the Common Market, which it had denounced as a capitalist club, found itself increasingly marginalised. From 1976 onwards, after the International Monetary Fund stepped in, Labour introduced a regime of economic austerity unprecedented in the post-war era.
Much of the left once again responded by reasserting the old verities of nationalisation and planning, putting their faith in an alternative economic strategy, based on Labour’s Programme 1973, which had at its centre the idea of regaining national sovereignty over the economy by imposing strict controls on imports and foreign exchange and leaving the Common Market. But the ground was less and less fertile.
Popular disillusionment with the unresponsiveness and inefficiency of public sector bureaucracies had, by the end of the seventies, critically undermined support for the traditional socialist programme even among the working class – a fact seized upon eagerly by the Tories’ propagandists. When the Thatcher Governments of the eighties set about privatising nationalised industries and reducing the role of the state as planner, they met little popular resistance.
It also became increasingly clear that the measures put forward in the alternative economic strategy would have been insufficient for the 1974-79 Labour Governments to have resisted the pressure from multinational capital to toe the austerity line. In France in the early eighties, Francois Mitterrand’s government was rapidly forced to retreat after it tried a very similar approach. Although the alternative economic strategy made it into Labour’s Programme 1982 (the basis for the 1983 election manifesto, the infamous “longest suicide note in history”), by the mid-eighties it was apparent that a medium-sized nation-state now had even less room for economic manoeuvre than the alternative economic strategy assumed. Capital was now multinational and mobile, and it could call many if not all of the shots in the formation of national economic policy. If the international bankers and multinational corporations wanted austerity budgets, there was little that any national government could do but submit.
Meanwhile, the Soviet model for “nationalisation and planning” socialism was becoming increasingly economically unattractive (it had long before ceased to be politically attractive to more than a handful of diehards.) In the early sixties, Nikita Khrushchev’s boast that the Soviet Union would soon overtake the West economically was taken seriously even by conservative Western politicians; by the mid-eighties, it was obvious to anyone who was awake that the Soviet Union and its satellites faced a gigantic economic crisis rooted in the profound irrationality of the planning system. By the end of the eighties, the crisis had become terminal.
Unsurprisingly, in the face of all this, the remains of the consensus among self-styled socialists about the core of socialism slowly disappeared as the eighties wore on. The influence of the alternative economic strategy waned rapidly, and nothing has really taken its place. Labour fought the 1987 election on a manifesto promising reflation and economic intervention, but without any hint of the siege measures it had offered in 1983. Today, like all its West European sister parties, it stands for social democratic austerity. The party remains committed to redistributive taxation, but it embraces Europe more enthusiastically than the Tories and emphasises that its fiscal and monetary policies are as tight as anyone’s. It seems likely to limit it intervention to training, transport infrastructure, environmental controls and defence diversification.
All of this would, of course, be an improvement on what we have now, but one cannot help but think that in today’s Labour Party, the revisionists of the fifties and sixties would come across as irresponsibly profligate economic meddlers.
So is British socialism dead? The right would like to believe so, but all that has ended is the hegemony of one conception of socialism – state socialism in one country. The arguments for social ownership and control of production remain as powerful as ever. Capitalism still means chaos, waste, exploitation, inequality and alienation; private ownership still denies us the power to influence the decisions that fundamentally affect our everyday lives. The global ecological crisis and world poverty both demand urgent radical attention to curb the ravages of capitalism.
The challenge facing socialists today is two-fold. On one level, it is essential to develop feasible, attractive, empowering, non-bureaucratic models of social ownership of production as alternatives to traditional nationalisation. At very least, socialists should be pushing Labour to adopt policies nationally that, without frightening away capital, actively encourage municipal enterprise, producer co-operatives and other forms of self-management.
But that is the easy bit. Beyond this, it is also essential to develop the means of controlling democratically the activities of multinational capital throughout the globe. So far, the institutions to do this simply do not exist and, so far, socialists have given the issue very little thought beyond gesturing at the potential of a democratised EC with greater powers. One of Tribune‘s priorities in the coming months will be to attempt to kick-start this crucial debate.