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Fighting without an army

The condition of Socialism in 2007

Part One

I was asked recently to write a review of Kenneth Morgan's biography of Michael Foot. Since Foot's political career climaxed in the 1970s and that was a period when I myself was active in politics this gave me an opportunity for a little trip down Memory Lane. The result can be read at the website of the free access online journal, the Dublin Review of Books, at http://www.drb.ie/sept_thekingof.html

The main thrust of the article will be familiar to readers of the Labour and Trade Union Review. Very briefly, I argued that the 1960s and 1970s - the period when Foot was closest to the levers of power - was the period in which the Socialist/Labour/Trade Union movement lost the very advantageous position they had enjoyed since the war, not because they were faced with a strong or skilful opposition, but because, at a moment when they were themselves the dominant force in the society, they continued to behave like a disgruntled subject caste. A functional economy needs management both at local and at national level. They were strong enough to prevent other elements from engaging in this management but they weren't willing to assume the responsibility themselves. Eventually, in the 1980s, their power was broken as, under the circumstances, it had to be.

 

HOW SOCIALISM COULD HAVE BEEN SAVED

There were three main pillars to what would have been a policy for perpetuating and strengthening the political consensus that favoured the working class - a legislative framework for trade union activity; a prices and incomes policy decided with trade union participation at national level; and industrial democracy. All three were necessary and they were all supported by the little group that produces the LTUR. Yet so far as I can remember they were never presented to the general public as a coherent package.

In this article I want to develop an argument I didn't develop in the DRB. I am treading in what is for me new, or new-ish, territory and will be grateful for any criticisms, comments or corrections anyone might care to make (I can be contacted personally at pbrooke@ukonline.co.uk).

So far as I can remember, the Wilson government proposed a prices and incomes policy shortly after taking office. Morgan quotes Harold Wilson as saying all too prophetically: 'Without an effective policy of this kind there would be literally no other choice than to restrict the level of jobs to that at which workers will not ask for wage increases or, if they did so ask, employers would not be able to pay them.' When that failed because of trade union opposition they proposed a legislative framework for trade union activity - Barbara Castle's In Place of Strife. That too failed. Then the Tories came back under Edward Heath and, after a brief flirtation with free market economics, they proposed a combination of legislative framework and prices and incomes policy, with close Trade Union participation at the level of the TUC, probably the best package offered during the whole period. But it too fell through trade union opposition. Labour came back through the miners' strike of 1974 and dismantled Heath's industrial relations legislation. They negotiated a voluntary incomes policy which did not concede a right of government regulation and, with the Bullock Report on Industrial Democracy, they proposed to facilitate the development of worker responsibility for the management of industry rather along the lines that had been established since the war in Germany. As Brendan Clifford pointed out in the February 2007 issue of LTUR (reviewing a book by Michael Foot's nephew Paul Foot) this failed not because of opposition from the CBI or the managerial side in industry but because of the hostility and indifference of the trade union and labour movement itself.

In fact it was barely discussed at all. I was secretary of a small 'Cambridge Workers Control Group' largely, though not entirely, student based and not exactly a major power in the land, yet I had the Financial Times ringing me up anxious to find someone, anyone, willing to argue the case for the Bullock Report. It is amusing, in the light of the present condition of the British trade union movement, to remember the discussions we used to have with people who accused the German trade unions of class collaboration!

Essentially the trade union leaders were insisting on a principle of 'free collective bargaining' (not a phrase we hear much nowadays) - a freedom of confrontation which appeared to favour them as the stronger side. This strength was however dependent on the willingness of government to support weaker industries in Britain to maintain full employment. When a government arrived that was prepared to allow the collapse of large swathes of British industry and the consequent increase in unemployment, the strength of a working class movement that refused to take responsibility for management decisions either at local or at national level, was revealed to be illusory.

 

WOULD IT STILL WORK?

Which poses the question: is it desirable, or feasible, to base politics at the present time round a demand for a nationally determined prices and incomes policy, and for industrial democracy?

The moment the question is posed we will be told that things have changed radically - meaning that the working class movement is no longer a power that has to be taken seriously into account; and if we persist, it will not be long before the mysterious word 'globalisation' makes its appearance.

'Globalisation' means broadly the right of the managerial class to locate their enterprises or draw their labour force from anywhere they choose in the world without regard to the national interest. By ' the national interest' I mean here the interest of a whole functioning society as represented by its government. The problem of the 1970s can be expressed very crudely by saying that the government's ability to enforce the national interest against the managerial class put the trade union movement in a very strong position which they pushed beyond the limits that the economy as a whole could sustain. The problem was resolved in the managerial interest when the government, towards the end of Margaret Thatcher's reign and then in the period of 'New Labour', abdicated the responsibility it had had to ensure full employment and a secure and reliable provision for housing and social welfare. Some of us may remember that in the days when there was full employment 'welfare dependency' - people preferring social security to work - was not regarded as a significant drag on the economy. When decent jobs were easily available, people preferred to work.

It could be argued that there is no longer such a thing as a national economy, just an international continuum of competing enterprises. The national economy was broken by those who like to boast that they 'saved the pound' from the clutches of the European Union! In these new circumstances, the trade union movement has very little power though doubtless some enterprises find its continued existence useful as a means of dialoguing with their workforce.

I remember in the 1970s when I was arguing for industrial democracy - for the right of workforce representatives to participate in managerial decision making - I had discussions with left wing economists who presented the situation as it was then in terms that resemble the situation as it is now. Industrial democracy, they argued, was impractical because industry was organised at an international level, so the workers on the board in Birmingham would have little control over what was decided at the headquarters in Seoul. They evoked the dangers of relocation and competition with lower paid workers elsewhere in the world, dangers which were only a cloud the size of a man's hand compared with the situation as it is today. Of course if globalisation was the irresistible force many nowadays think it is then indeed the structure we would have liked to have seen in the 1970s - union regulation, prices and incomes policy, industrial democracy - would perhaps have been quickly blown away. Perhaps not quite so quickly: the process has certainly been slower in Germany and France. It could have been slower still if the French and Germans had had the support of a strong, intelligently led working class movement in the United Kingdom.

'Globalisation' is of course nothing new. My Marxist interlocutors knew all about it because this internationalisation of capital is the situation described by Marx, especially in Vol III of Capital and by Lenin in his writings on Imperialism which stress economic rather than territorial expansion, the interest of the multinational corporation rather than the interests of a dominant nation. But in the 1970s the principle was well established that government could oblige industry to take account of an overall social interest, necessarily at national level, ie at the level overseen by government. It would have been a splendid thing if this 'national' consensus could have been expanded to a European level at a time when Europe was still of a manageable size and shared a general social-democratic consensus. But our left wing leadership, Tony Benn and Michael Foot united - both of whom saw Britain as far in advance of a benighted class-collaborationist Europe - squandered their energies in a pointless campaign against Britain's membership of the Common Market. And this at precisely the moment when the drama of working class power in Britain was reaching its climax. One of the most shocking moments in Kenneth Morgan's biography of Foot comes when we learn that in the 1990s Foot decided that maybe Europe wasn't such a bad thing after all and the Euroscepticism so passionately proclaimed in the 1970s was given a 'decent unchristian burial'. This is not a man who deserves to be taken seriously.

 

CAPITALISM MINUS ZERO - NO LIMITS

But there was at the time another factor that was limiting the scope for 'globalisation' - the right of the entrepreneurial/managerial class to roam freely throughout the world.

Stalin's Economic Problems of Socialism in the USSR, which could be seen as his political testament, had argued that the best way to combat capitalism was to close off large areas of the world economy to its expansion. Capitalism to survive has to expand, to find new markets, new means of realising profits. In the 1970s there was much talk of the 'falling rate of profit'. Capitalism appeared to be reaching its limits partly at least because of the doors that were closed throughout the world by the emergence of a rival system. Whether we understand this rival system as socialism or state capitalism or whatever - whether we like this rival system or not - the main effect on us was the limits it imposed on the freedom of manoeuvre of business within what liked to call itself the 'free world'. The nineteenth century had largely been a matter of smashing open the doors of what was to become 'the third world'. And now they were closing again.

But since the fall of the Soviet Union and the triumph of the capitalist road in China, they have opened again. Our famous 'globalisation' is not something new under the Sun. The early twenty-first century resembles the late nineteenth/early twentieth century, 'terrorist' threat and all, and all the indications are that we are going to have to go through a similar process of increasingly massive wars for access to markets and to natural resources.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries it was possible to believe that the motor for change, holding the promise of a better future, was the self-interest of the working class. 'Scientific socialism' taught that the advance of the working class was a historical inevitability. It would finally become 'the ruling class', meaning that society would be organised on the basis of workers' intelligent, 'scientifically' informed, understanding of their own best interests. Up until the 1970s, with a thousand qualifications, it was possible to believe that this was the process, the hidden hand, that was structuring the general direction of events. When I joined the Socialist movement in the 1970s it was in the conviction that I was joining the winning side. From the 1970s onwards this glorious prospect seems to be receding and with it any prospect of vindicating, of making sense of, that dreadful century.

I am sorry to finish on this gloomy note but there is little point in pretending that we know what we want and what to do about it if we don't know what we want and what to do about it. The Russian philosopher Nicholas Berdyaev says that when the night comes, we retire to our own homes and light the lamps. A time for reflection is needed, including a questioning or a reassertion of fundamental values. In a subsequent article, or maybe a series of articles, I hope to offer some thoughts of a more positive nature.

Go to Part Two