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Fighting without an army

The condition of Socialism in 2007

Part Two

 

THE WORKING CLASS AS RULING CLASS?

One of the arguments used against the Bullock Report on Industrial Democracy was that, once on the board and faced with the problems of management, the worker representatives would develop a managerial mindset. They would just become another sort of management. The reply to this was fairly obvious - that the worker representatives were elected by the workforce who could remove them again if they felt they were not representing their interests; and of course the workforce still had the possibility of normal trade union action in opposition to management decisions they did not like. It may be noted in parenthesis here that one of the arguments the Bullock Report gave for worker representation was that if there was no responsibility on the board to any substantial social interest, the management would become a freewheeling managerial caste responsible only to itself since the control exercised by the shareholding interest was rather nebulous and largely in the hands of the biggest investors, which is to say, other managers. This has proved to be prophetic. It was not difficult in the 1970s to envisage a joint management of technocrats responsible to the shareholders and others responsible to the workforce. But it is much more difficult nowadays largely because 'management' - with its inflated salaries and superstar status - has the appearance of a different species of humanity.

Behind the argument that worker representatives would defect to the management side, however, there lay an assumption which was strongly felt but could not be stated in so many words. This was that the working class, as it existed in the 1970s, after over a century of educational work on the part of the Socialist and Trade Union movement, was not the stuff of which ruling classes are made. The key issue was not real workers exercising real control in the society but government exercising control on their behalf. Eventually the real workers might be weaned away from The Sun and The Daily Star and educated to be able to take charge of their own destiny but in their present benighted state the most that could be hoped from them was industrial action on limited issues that would make the efficient functioning of the capitalist economy impossible.

Unfortunately, as I tried to argue in my last article, industrial action is strongest where government is already functioning in a semi-socialist manner, ie willing to intervene in order to ensure the continued existence of the enterprise. This was the form of government that was vulnerable to industrial action. So the end result of the use of working class power to bring about a Socialist government has been the progressive dismantling of those elements of Socialism that were already in place and, with it, a huge weakening of the working class power that was largely dependent on it. And a lesson to be drawn is that if ever we do get back to a Socialist government willing to guarantee security of welfare and employment, the major danger it will face may well come from the organised working class.

In the light of this experience it is difficult, thirty years on, to quarrel with the contention that the working class is not the stuff of which ruling classes are made. In all the upheavals we have undergone, in particular the wholesale conversion of the Labour Party to what would previously have seemed an extreme right wing commitment to the principle of free enterprise, the working class as a collective entity has hardly been a player. Nor is this just a matter of Britain. The great drama of the fall - or in the case of China the radical reorientation - of the workers' states has taken place with hardly a word from the workers themselves. In the collapsing Soviet Union the divisions of ethnicity and religion have proved to be stronger than those of class - the left/right, east/west division of the Ukraine, for example, is a division between Ukrainians of an Orthodox and Russian orientation and Ukrainians of a Catholic and more Polish orientation.

 

WHERE DID THE SOCIALISTS COME FROM?

A large number of those who used to be on the left have of course switched sides but those who have retained some sort of Socialist conscience seem to be mainly preoccupied not with issues of industrial organisation in Britain but with foreign policy. In part this is because of the obvious evil of the foreign policy that has been pursued over the past twenty years or so, since the blockade of Nicaragua and invasion of Panama. In the last article I argued that with respect to the economy the world resembles what the left thought it was like in the 1970s. Similarly with foreign policy. The 1970s, after the American retreat from Vietnam, was a low water mark for Western Imperialism, especially British Imperialism. I remember thinking (indeed writing) that now that Imperialism was safely dead and buried the sons and daughters of the Imperialists had taken up arms against it at a time when there were more useful things to be doing at home. But Imperialism, in the form of military campaigns abroad designed to keep the world in chaos and prevent the emergence of any strong, independent contrary power, has risen from the grave and the old left wing analyses that once seemed so irrelevant are now beginning to look pretty good.

But more to the immediate point, the emphasis on foreign rather than domestic affairs can be explained by the fact that many Socialists - certainly most of the Socialists I know, myself included - have not done too badly over the past thirty years. We have little sense of personal grievance. The working class and its institutions have been decimated, but the theorists, the ideological champions, of Socialism were precisely the sort of well-educated individualists who could expect to flourish in the get-up-and-go culture of the 1980s and 90s.

The divorce between Socialist politics and the working class was already well-established by the early 1970s and was addressed by Barry Hindess in his book The Decline of Working Class Politics, published in 1970. This journal is published under the auspices of the 'Bevin Society' - but Ernest Bevin, greatest British trade union and working class political leader of the twentieth century as he was, left little in the way of a clearcut political heritage; and one of the lessons I drew from Kenneth Morgan's biography of Michael Foot was that, for good or for ill, Aneurin Bevan did not do much better. Many of those who took up working class politics in the 1960s did so on the basis of an enthusiasm not for British working class history but for exotic events elsewhere - the Russian Revolution, Cuba, Vietnam, the Chinese cultural revolution, black power in the United States. Some of us may have made more effort than others to adapt our ideas to local conditions but we were always in reality completely out of it - and, and this is the important point, the working class was not generating out of its own condition a leadership or body of ideas that could draw us in. The mood among intellectuals - including intellectuals from a working class background - was anarchistic, anti-establishment, anti-government and ultimately anti-collectivist. Ultimately it slotted easily into the Thatcherite framework (and there was a self-consciously anarchist element among Thatcher's supporters). It hardly corresponded to the collectivist ideal of workers' control in industry, never mind the full state control that was urged by Tony Benn and his supporters - and Morgan points to the ease with which many of those supporters subsequently switched over to Tony Blair.

 

WHY I AM (still) A SOCIALIST

All of which poses the question - why should we not be happy with the way things are, the triumph of individual liberty, choice, free enterprise and all the rest of it? The answer to my mind is that this is not the way things are. The freewheeling entrepreneurial individualistic spirit is still just froth on top of a collectivist sea. The software which has been such an exciting adventure for so many enterprising individuals for so long requires a hardware which still needs to be put together by large numbers of people working collectively often under atrocious conditions. Britain may have evolved into a 'third wave' economy dominated by the 'service sector' but we still wear clothes, we still live in houses, we still drive in cars, we still eat food and these are hard physical realities that need to be produced by hard physical labour. That this hard physical labour is out of sight, largely outside the country, and politically impotent does not change the fact that we are dancing lightheartedly on top of a huge sea of human misery, of 'wage slavery' of the type that is described in the most elementary Marxist texts.

And there is a point at which the implications of our everyday life become all too visible and that is 'foreign policy', meaning the need to ensure that the world continues to supply all those hard material objects that are needed to keep us in the comfort to which we have become accustomed. The Iraq war was all about oil we sneer knowingly as if we ourselves are not as dependent on oil as anyone else, as if we ourselves are in some way detached from the logic that has led to the renewal of the British military adventurism we all deplore.

If it is not easy to see what can be done in politics in detail the broad outline seems to me to be fairly clear. The illusory ideal of individual autonomy and 'freedom' - and the perverse and socially destructive idealising of 'competition' - needs to be replaced by an awareness of the elementary fact of collective interdependence. The ideals of government, of centralised organisation, of public service, have to recover their moral and intellectual credibility, and an ideal of co-operation and mutual aid among governments internationally has to replace the system of bullying and bribery which is imposed by the ideal of international free trade.

It sounds like old fashioned Socialism but old-fashioned Socialism looked to the working class in advanced industrial countries as the force that could bring it about. Although it should not be definitively ruled it no longer looks very realistic. There is however one consideration that might offer grounds of hope and that, paradoxically, is the success of Thatcherism.

In the 1970s, it happens that I had dealings with some of the ideologues of what eventually became known as Thatcherism. In those days they had the charm that attaches to all believers in logically consistent ideas that cannot be reduced to practise. Standing right outside the social reality they were able to make quite a few interesting observations about it. It simply was not possible to foresee the combination of circumstances that transformed this eccentric fringe into what is now the much sought after 'middle ground' of British politics. They themselves were surprised by it and it took a couple of terms in office before Thatcher realised the full extent of the field that lay outstretched before her. But if their idea is, as I have suggested, based on a falsehood (the illusion of the autonomous individual) then its days are, necessarily, numbered, and the collectivist idea will come round again, perhaps in circumstances as unpredictable as the circumstances that led to the triumph of the individualist idea. We can only hope it does not require, as it has in the past, a world war or equivalent catastrophe before this can happen.