The British Road to Socialism by Nina Stead
The Communist, No.55, Nov 1972
Note: Subheadings as in the original - PB
- The place of the ruling class in British history
How the working class overthrows a democratic ruling class
(a) How to translate "the workers' will" into Socialism ?
(b) The working class is forced by history and a democratic ruling class to develop
(c) The working class get the vote: a direct majority voice in political power
(d) The working class's progress along the road to Socialism ... how far have they come?
The question of the transition from capitalism to socialism has never been faced by British Communists from the standpoint of dialectical materialism. That is to say they have never taken the possibility of a transition from capitalism to socialism seriously. Their starting point has remained that of the working class reacting to history. In these situations Communists have acted to organise the working class so that its force was given effective political voice and co-ordination. Communists could appear as the vanguard of the class because they were its leaders. But the limits of this position have been clear for nearly a century to any observer of history to see.
If the working class is to become the ruling class in a socialist society it must be capable of ruling.
THE PLACE OF THE RULING CLASS IN BRITISH HISTORY
To be capable of ruling, a class must have a clear understanding of what elements in the society ensure its survival and development and how they do so. The problem for a ruling class is to protect those elements and permit the process of development to continue. It is when the ruling class fails to do so that the government and laws break down. The elements of the society are then laid bare and those parts of it which are necessary for survival and development prove their necessity through victory in the conflict resulting from the breakdown of law and order.
We can see this process in the transition from feudalism to capitalism. The English ruling class (consisting of the aristocracy, landed gentry, merchants and manufacturers) had recognised in the sixteenth century that capitalism was economically superior to feudalism and that for the continuing survival and development of society it was necessary for capitalism to be given full scope. In the 17th century in the conflict between the Crown and Parliament, the ruling class were united in opposing the royal prerogative: the King's right to put his interests above those of society. They saw that the monarchy had a function: to act as the head of the Executive arm of Government - no more and no less than this. The Civil War was fought not because a section of the ruling class were reactionary and hanging onto an outworn social epoch, but because there was disagreement about what political form would best ensure the development of capitalism. The question of support for capitalism and the social relations arising from it was never an issue.
The necessity for a central executive power was proved in the Protectorate when Oliver Cromwell functioned as the monarch - exercising more 'royal prerogative' than Charles I ever dared. The difference was that Cromwell used his prerogative in accordance with the needs of society. He continually attempted to re-establish other political forms in the society: the House of Lords, Parliament, an established Church. He was unable to do so because the gentry and the capitalists withheld their consent from his regime; they tolerated it because they lacked sufficient power to both overthrow him and construct a stable political form. Nevertheless his reign was successful: capitalism prospered under him. The Restoration proved that the section of the ruling class who had argued the necessity of the monarchy had been correct. The refounding of the monarchy was a progressive step in British history because it allowed for the continuing political and economic development of society. The regicide and usurper Cromwell continued to be revered by the British monarchist ruling class. When the Bradford capitalists constructed their town hall in the 19th century they put a statue of Cromwell in its rightful place in between the other kings of England.
A 'pure' bourgeois democracy advocated by the Levellers was impossible because it made no provision for the administration or organisation of social needs. Its advocates argued that 'the will of the people' was sufficient: once that was determined the rest would be bound to follow. Its opponents argued that unless the institutions and mechanisms for social survival and development were intact, the people's will could not be expressed: it would remain at the level of will ... the needs of the society would remain needs, incapable of being met. This indeed is the meaning of anarchy, when the needs of the society are not accounted for by the institutions of the society. The raw materials are there (producers and means of production) but the means of organising those are not. It is important to recognise that no section of the English ruling class seriously disputed the society's 'right' to develop itself: indeed they recognised that development was only a 'right' because it was necessary. What was at issue was how it could be done without jeopardising society itself.
The establishment of William and Mary on the English throne is defined for history as the Glorious Revolution. How can an affirmation of royalty be termed a revolution? How could the late l8th century Whigs (Burke,Grey, Fox) find in this act an affirmation of the bourgeois principles of Liberty or Freedom? The answer is clear to anyone who looks at history dialectically. The meaning of an institution can only be ascertained in watching how that institution interacts with the society which is its base. It is a dialectical interaction; no social institution exists independently of society. In England the monarchy provided the basis for the democratic development of society. After the Civil War and the Glorious Revolution had formally and consciously established the principle of constitutional monarchy, not only was the Crown not despotic (the royal will prevailing in the society whether or not it met the society's needs) it was also not conditional absolutism (the royal will obeyed if it accorded with social needs and revolted against when it did not). The Crown was the nominal head of the administrative apparatus necessary to translate social needs into practice; it also was the nominal head of the ideological apparatus necessary to pose the questions of the society's needs and development in a conscious way to the people. The institution of the monarchy did nothing more.
The history of the development of capitalism in Germany shows that it is certainly unnecessary to allow for the democratic development of society in order to develop it socially and economically. German capitalism became a serious competitor of Britain in the 1880s. The progressive English capitalists saw clearly that the German methods of production and social administration were not only more scientific than the British, but in many cases more humane (child labor had never been permitted in Germany). The German institutions certainly resembled the British - she also seemed to be a constitutional monarchy. The difference lies in the relation of the political institutions to the society itself. In Germany the Crown and its government took the measure of the society and based their measures accordingly. Parliament did not register the final result of the society's deliberations, arguments, struggles on an issue - it was rather the vehicle of the government which registered the results of the government's analysis and judgment of the society. The difference is not in the institutions and cannot be discerned from their formal similarities or dissimilarities. Nor can it be discerned by the formal relation between the instituion and the society. The German Parliament was democratically elected. The difference can only be seen dialectically, through the working out of history. When World War I had forced Germany into a state of anarchy, the society proved incapable of reconstructing its old institutions or of constructing new ones. Without the existence of a conscious Executive, the society could not function. Neither the bourgeoisie or the working class were capable of constituting such a conscious Executive. In Germany because there had been no need for consciousness and political development apart from the Executive, that Executive had made no provision to let the component parts of the society develop in this way. Yet German absolutism had been as effective an instrument of social organisation as British democracy for capitalism.
HOW THE WORKING CLASS OVERTHROWS A DEMOCRATIC RULING CLASS
Marx, Engels and Lenin stated that the working class would be forced to use violence in order to overthrow states of the German absolutist type - which relied for their hold over society on a standing army and a bureaucracy. In states like Britain, where the society was largely self-governing - i.e. the government merely formalised and administered decisions which the elements of the society had already worked out through their interaction - Marx, Engels and Lenin felt that a peaceful transition was possible.
It would be difficult to sustain the argument that the conditions for a peaceful transition in Britain are different now than they were when Marx, Engels and Lenin wrote. As much of the British army as can be spared from NATO duties are now occupied in Northern Ireland. They are fully engaged in dealing with 1 million people. There are 60 million people in Britain. Further, no British government since World War I has so much as contemplated using troops against workers - indeed it is now contentious whether Government could even use troops to act as blacklegs in strikes. Most current bourgeois politicians would argue that the gain from keeping production going would be lost by the working class's reaction against the troops which would certainly have a vigourous political expression.
As far as an increase in bureaucracy is concerned, it is important to understand the type of bureaucracy that Marx, Engels and Lenin meant when they wrote. This was a system of government which regulated the society by laws and rules coming from the top rather than from the society around them. The system was inflexible because its basis was the government assessing the needs of society and promulgating them through law rather than the elements of society themselves developing those needs into ways and forms of meeting them and having the Government then simply affirm that those ways and forms were legitimate and furnishing if necessary the apparatus to administer them.
The best way of illustrating the difference is by comparing the development of collective bargaining in Britain and France. In Britain by the l860s both employers and unions had recognised the sense in negotiating wage contracts by industry and by region. (Sometimes as in textiles, the region and the industry were coterminous. Where they were not, as in mining and iron, the negotiating bodies reflected a regionalisation of the market for the commodity itself. E.g. Durham, and Northumberland as producers of coal for the export market shrank for a long time from negotiating with their fellow miners in the Midlands/Lancs/Yorks 'federated' area where coal was produced for the home market.) They therefore proceeded to construct 'conciliation boards' which in fact negotiated the conditions of work for the labour force and also dealt with any local disputes arising out of the agreement. In 1896 the Government Bill establishing a Government conciliation service provided that Government arbitration should only be used if both sides asked for it and the non-binding conciliation service only after one side had requested it. The most progressive employers (such as David Dale, the Newcastle Quaker who was an ironmaster and on the board of the NE Railway) and the trade unions had shown that collective bargaining and 'conciliation boards' were effective institutions for ensuring that the production process flowed smoothly and for safeguarding the needs of both the working class and the employers within capitalism. The Government acknowledged this utility by providing similar services for industries incapable of developing them themselves (Trade Boards Act, 1907) and augmented the already existing institutions with its own. In France, the Government imposed a minimum wage structure and enforced collective bargaining on both employers and workers. The result was that both the employers and unions became dependent on the state to mete out the conditions of work and wage contracts. There was in fact no collective bargaining but rather regulation by law. The trade unions were weak compared to Britain. Though the conditions in the engineering industry were the same in France, no institution comparable to the shop steward ever developed out of the working class. Shop stewards in Britain were the working class representative in direct shop floor negotiation first with the engineering employer and later with the Government dilution commissioner in World War I about both wages and the organisation of production. In France, such questions were settled by the state.
(a) HOW TO TRANSLATE "THE WORKERS' WILL" INTO SOCIALISM ?
The unanswerable argument which 'reactionaries' like Hobbes and Burke have posed to 'pure' democrats like Rousseau and the Levellers is that the direct expression of the 'will of the people' is impossible. Without the institutions and organisation to translate 'will' into practice direct democracy becomes anarchy in practice and thus remains forever an idealist slogan. However, because there is a dialectical relation between society and the Government which regulates it, not every Government need be absolutist or a dictatorship. In Britain the Government and the ruling class have always kept their hold over the society to a minimum - they have concentrated on the essential functions of formalising and administering institutions which the society itself has already developed to ensure its survival and development. This amounts to holding the ring - i.e. doing the minimum necessary to ensure that anarchy does not break out while allowing the social forces room to develop themselves through conflict - indeed forcing them to do so by refusing to govern by lawgiving. This makes very good sense from the point of view of the survival of the ruling class. No decisions are taken by the Government which do not reflect conscious developments in the society. Instead of giving conscious expressions to social needs, the Government formalises an already conscious development. Thus, there is no reason for revolt or rebellion as the ruling class is never out of step with the society. It also means that the ruling class's welfare is dependent on the ability of the society itself to survive and develop. This means that the forces in the society: the working class as the producers of wealth; the bourgeoisie as the owners and organisers of wealth; the production process itself; the ideology of the society interact with only the minimum of stability and order imposed by the state with the consent of the classes. Out of this interaction comes the institutions and evolution of the society. It is certainly not the most efficient or scientific way of impelling a society forward. However, it has proved that it is the most durable way and also the way which subjects the ruling class to the least risk of destruction. (Destruction however is not to be confused with change. For there is no doubt that the British ruling class has changed radically not only in its style of living but also in its 'historical perspective'. Those socialists who still see the ruling class and the Conservatives as aristocratic etc are advised to turn back to the beginning of this article and start again.)
The arguments put forward by the ruling class against democratic reform at the end of the l8th century to 1832 were not disagreement in principle, but were their judgment that to allow the masses (at this period the working class was still not a majority of the population. Small commodity producers - not a peasantry subordinate to landlords - still were an economic and political force) a direct voice - i.e. to express their will directly - was incompatible with stability and order. The French Revolution proved them right beyond a doubt. The masses were incapable in France of establishing the political institutions to allow the society to survive and develop. However, while in France the reaction against this failure of the people's will established an absolutist state, in Britain the ground was being prepared for the expression of the people's will through the self-development of the people within the existing institutions. Precisely because those institutions did not derive their substance from legislation or truth from above but from the expression of the social forces themselves, was this possible.
(b) THE WORKING CLASS IS FORCED BY HISTORY AND A DEMOCRATIC RULING CLASS TO DEVELOP
The struggle for the 10 hour day was beginning at this time. The existence of an unreformed Parliament, election to which depended more on the decision of the ruling class than on the will of the people, did not deter the working class from using Parliament and their right of petition effectively. The Short Time Associations of Lancashire and Yorkshire not only used Parliament, they dictated to the MPs what they wanted legislated. And the Parliament listened. There was nothing in the form or appearance of Parliament which forced Parliament to listen - it did so because its responsibility was not to the ruling class or to the limited number of electors, but to the society. Recognising that the working class were fast becoming the majority of the society and that they were the producers of wealth, Parliament legislated for a 10 Hour Day in l847 after the working class had developed its case through the existing political institutions (creating some ad hoc institutions like the Short Time Associations on the way. The room in British society for voluntary institutions like these is crucial to this type of government. If the voluntary organisation has some substance in the society, it will show this by continuing to gain membership, make its voice heard and, through gaining more and more adherents, will develop and refine its case - i.e. begin to make more and more sense to the society. Its case will be more and more in line with what it is possible to achieve in the present situation. When that case has been thoroughly aired, it will be evident to the ruling class how much of it is essential to adopt and give legitimacy to and what is inessential.) Not only did the ruling class 'permit' the working class to make use of 'exclusive' political institutions, the ruling class was also tackling the job of making the working class conscious of the new capitalist society so that it could participate directly in its institutions. The education of the working class as a class was begun on a voluntary basis by progressive members of the ruling class as early as the end of the l8th century. Lord Brougham (Liberal cabinet minister) and the Glasgow capitalist Birkbeck were amongst the first who provided lectures in political economy, philosophy, and science to mechanics in the evenings. By 1886 Gladstone was able to say that the ruling class as a whole had understood the need for education of the working class, that the working class also understood this need and that therefore the Government was taking up the question while in no way limiting the continued activity of voluntary associations. To those 'Marxists' who howl that the ruling class fed the working class opiate ideology but called it education, one can only reply that the education provided in no way held the working class back from self-development. We would ask these 'Marxists' to produce evidence of the ruling class in Britain ever holding back the working class, keeping them at bay, with idealism, metaphysics or religion. The ruling class's arguments with socialists or democrats have not been arguments of principle but of practice - that the society itself is not ready to absorb such changes. And the ruling class has only held back the development of such changes when the class has seen them threatening social stability - i.e. when anarchy rather than a further development of society would be the consequence. In point of fact, the last time it was necessary for the ruling class to hold back such a movement in the British working class was Chartism. Since that time the working class has thrown up no demand for social change and development that the ruling class has not met.
(c) THE WORKING CLASS GET THE VOTE: A DIRECT MAJORITY VOICE IN POLITICAL POWER
In the debates on the 1867 Reform Bill which enfranchised the working class for the first time, no serious politician objected to the principle of working class enfranchisement, the arguments were about how much and where the working class could be given the vote so as to ensure continued stability. The proposers of the Bill in 1864 had been able to chronicle the working class's progress since 1832 with figures about the literacy of the working class (the highest in Europe - and not only literacy but education) and the astronomical increase in newspaper and periodical circulation,. Trade unions, temperance societies, friendly societies were also cited as evidence that the working class was now consciously involved in those institutions and activities that enabled the society to survive and develop. In 1867 the ruling class judged that the society was ready to enfranchise the working class, and indeed that it was necessary to do so in order to ensure continuing developments In Britain, this did not mean giving the working class a chance to vote in an election every seven years. The formal elections to Parliament have never been the substance of democracy. Those who see the formal aspects of the system as defining its politics show themselves to be shallow observers of history. Giving the working class the vote meant that the ruling class were acknowledging the working class's right (a right because they had proved themselves able to assert it) to determine their future within a capitalist society. And the ruling class were well aware that because the working class in 1867 were 75% of the population this development was of very great significance for the future of capitalism and society.
We can see the ruling class's reaction vividly in John Stuart Mill's writings. As a result of the 1867 Reform Act he began to consider socialism more than just a hypothetical possibility Prior to 1867 his attitude to socialism had been open-minded, rational and objective. He could have no objections in principle, but did not take it seriously as an alternative method of organising society; he instead looked to more rational ways of organising society with property rights to advance society. After l867 he took socialism very seriously indeed because he recognised that it was a very likely future course of social development. In fact Mill became a socialist insofar as he saw that socialism was definitely a progressive form of economic organisation.
It should not be forgotten that when the ruling class acknowledged the working class right to vote, they also accepted that it would be working class MPs who represented them in Parlament. The Liberal Party leadership (from Gladstone to the Whip, Francis Schnadhorst) actively sought arrangements between the local, autonomous Liberal Federations and the Trade Unions in constituencies where the trade unions were strong to make sure that a Liberal candidate did not oppose a trade union candidate. Far from enticing the working class away from its own interests, they expected its representatives to stand for and support those interests in Parliament. That after all was why the working class had been given the vote. In practice Gladstone showed that he, like Marx, understood the need for the working class to have its independent political representatives.
The only obstacles which the ruling class placed in the way of the working class in Britain to the development of socialism were practical ones: how could a society be organised on the basis of 'from each according to is ability, to each according to his needs' instead of on the basis of private property (to each according to his labour/merit shown through economic activity). No conscious member of the ruling class after J.S. Mill has taken the system of private property as given or absolute; they have been clear that society will not necessarily descend into anarchy if that system is abolished. They have simply asked to be shown signs that an alternative means of ordering society is practical. It has been up to the working class to prove this. Keynes's reaction after visiting the USSR in the early 1920s was that this new way of organising society was not only attractive to him as an idea, but also potentially viable. J.S. Mill readily acknowledged that under the system of private property the working class gave up that part of the product that went to the employer (apart from the rate of return he received for the investment of his money). He could see the rationality of the working class giving up that part of their product not to the employer but to the community, so that the community could determine how that sum was to be used. Morley's comment in the l880s that we are all socialists now is significant. He was not one of the most progressive members of the Liberal Party, but he was one of the more perceptive and acute.
As long as the working class developed socialism within the British notions of stability and order, the British ruling class would not oppose it. And those British notions provide for the development of conscious conflict within the society between those forces representing progress and those representing reaction. It is assumed by the ruling class that the weaker and therefore inessential forces will lose in this conflict and that the stronger and therefore essential ones will win and be capable of occupying the place of the reactionary forces in maintaining stability and order in the changed social circumstances. Indeed, this tallies with Marx's, Engels's, and Lenin's assessments that a peaceful transition in Britain was possible.
(d) THE WORKING CLASS'S PROGRESS ALONG THE ROAD TO SOCIALISM ... HOW FAR HAVE THEY COME?
Communists can have no objection in principle to the political institutions in Britain. Those institutions permit the working class to set about a peaceful transition to socialism. They are institutions which bend to allow whatever is the substance of the society to be expressed, to permit the development of social forces through conflict which is essential to the society's survival and development. The only condition which the political institutions and ideology place on this development and conflict is that it should be as conscious and rational as is possible, given the intransigence of those elements in the society which have become inessential. But it should be remembered that even the outworn and reactionary elements in British society are very conscious and rational indeed and have proved historically that they can recognise when 'the game is up' without plunging the society into anarchy.
If there has been no transition from capitalism to socialism the explanation certainly does not rest on the intransigence or reactionary nature of the British ruling class. Nor indeed does it rest with that ruling class's powers. For the power of the ruling class consists simply in their limited ability to ensure the stability of society - that production continues to flow smoothly and that conflict in the society does not go beyond the bounds necessary to develop society. It is an ability clearly limited by their inability to use force in the society (Britain has not had a standing army since the New Model Army of the Civil War) and their inability to use the law against an intransigeant section of society unless public opinion has sanctioned that use (the government could not keep the Poplar Council in Brixton Prison in the 30s; they could not prosecute J.R. Campbell, Daily Worker editor, for sedition in 1929; they have not been able to operate the Industrial Relations Act in 1972).
The conclusion that must be drawn from this historical analysis is that it is the working class itself which is responsible for the fact that there has been no transition (peaceful or otherwise) from capitalism to socialism. It is my contention that Marx was correct to show that the development of the productive forces under capitalism would prepare the ground for socialism, that the economic development of society would impel it towards socialism and that the working class was the only class capable of establishing socialism politically. Marx stated this because socialism as a way of organising production is more advanced than capitalism, it enables the society to develop more directly and efficiently, and the working class as the producers of wealth are the only social force necessary for socialism. Those Marx-critics who accuse him of determinism base their critique on his observations that the productive forces would through the logic of their development prepare the society for socialism. They state that his analysis must be incorrect since we still live in a capitalist world. It is my contention that the productive forces have impelled Britain to the point where the choice will soon be between socialism and anarchy: that socialism will be literally necessary for the continued survival and development of society. I also think that the British ruling class are well aware of this fact and are not only permitting but forcing the necessary institutions and ideology for socialism to develop within the society. This means forcing the working class to develop socialism or if it will not to face the real choice: anarchy.
The main reason for the continuing presence of capitalism is that under the system of private property the working class has participated as wholeheartedly as the bourgeoisie in the principle of to each according to his labour/merit shown through economic activity/political power. Their numerical strength and developing political consciousness of how to use the existing democratic institutions meant that the working class has been able to force a redistribution of their surplus value away from profits and into their own consumption. This has always been the main activity in the class struggle of the working class in Britain, it represents not only their acquiescence in the system of private property but their active participation in it on its own terms. The result has been that the society is now near breaking down, because there is not sufficient capital (profits) to guarantee its reproduction let alone development. The working class is not at present conscious of the fact that there is a limit to the right of private property: that a portion of one's labour must be foregone in order to ensure reproduction. The bourgeoisie have long been conscious of this fact and also of the fact that the working class have a greater ability to force redistribution of the product in their favour. Since the 19th century the consumption of the bourgeoisie has declined relative to the working class and will continue to decline. However, even in the 19th century, the puritan ethic of the bourgeoisie had the function of ensuring that adequate capital was available to the society for its reproduction.
Up until the l890s the British working class were certainly conscious of the need to ensure the society's reproduction through adequate profits. Sliding scale agreements were not only freely negotiated but actively sought by trade union leaders. Moreover, these agreements were on terms favourable to the working class. Wages could travel upwards by as much as 45% as market prices travelled upwards; but they could only travel downwards by 10-15% as market prices moved downwards. In the l890s, however, New Unionism and socialism entered on the British working class scene. In Britain New Unionism and socialism were less conscious expressions of the working class's position in society than the old Unions and Lib-Labs. They were able to replace the old union consciousness and the Lib Labs because these old institutions no longer adequately expressed the working class's power in society. The working class had become the main force in the society and the old institutions assumed that the bourgeoisie had equal if not superior force. They had been adequate expressions for the working class; they were now reactionary. The ruling class recognised this and did not resist either New Unionism or socialism intransigently. Both New Unionism and socialism have remained at the level of reaction to the working class's position in society. They have enabled the working class to use that position; but they have been unable to permit the conscious development of the working class from that position.
Because the trade union movement and socialism have not developed into conscious institutions in the society, they still retain the 'will of the people' idealist slogan that is so typical an expression of an emerging, raw social force. The ruling class's response in Britain to the 'will of the people' has been to attempt to force its advocates to develop their needs and the people's will into forms which the society could absorb and put into practice. This does not mean the existing forms, but only forms which the society can come to absorb and use. We can see the results of the ruling class's pressure in the Fabians. We find them advocating the nationalisation of industry only when that particular industry was ripe for nationalisation i.e. when the economic logic of the production process impelled socialisation and when the necessary social relations were clear to society. (The Fabians were founded in the late 1880s; G.B. Shaw was their representative at the founding conference of the ILP. They have been a part of the labour movement from its birth as a 'labour movement'.)
Though the Fabians developed the best description of how the transition from capitalism to socialism could come about within British society, they completely funked the problem of the way in which that description had to be explained to the working class. And they never understood and consequently never prepared for or allowed for the fact that conflict was essential in the transition - both between the classes and within the working class against its outworn institutions. The working class needed the Fabians' programme because they were faced with the fact of having to provide an alternative programme to the Tories and the Liberals if they were to be a credible, serious political force within the society. The ruling class's response to the emergence of the ILP was 'convince the people and they will vote you to power'. If the ILP, the self-styled representative of the working class, was not to be ignominiously shown up to the working class, it had indeed to cough up a programme, to develop its 'will of the people' and 'socialism is the spirit of the age' into something that looked as if it could work and convince the voters that it would do. The result was the Labour Party; the trade unions provided the support of the working class, the ILP the rhetoric and the party machine and the Fabians the programme.
But the Fabians took the appearance of the British political system for the fact and substance. They believed that once they could get the politicians of the society to accept their programme as legitimate, it could be implemented. They did not understand that in Britain politicians and Parliament could only act in the society insofar as the society itself consciously understood and accepted the need for such action. Neither the working class nor the bourgeoisie will give up their positions in the system of private property until they understand and accept the necessity for so doing. The Fabian programme was grafted onto the Labour Party without ever having to withstand the test of doing political struggle with the working class. It never met the dominant consciousness of the working class head on to defeat it, it simply became the top layer of that consciousness which it was necessary to equip a Labour cabinet with if the Labour Party was to take its place as the second party in the British parliamentary system. The ILP rhetoric about 'the will of the people' and the moral rectitude of socialism remained at the level of the politically conscious supporters of the Labour Party in the country. The logic of having Parliamentary representation for the working class as a class and for the trade union movement remains the reason still why the working class as a class vote Labour (when they in fact do so - they also vote Conservative!).
It was the atrophy of the Liberal Party that permitted Fabianism its ascendancy in the minds of the Labour cabinet ministers, not the force of working class opinion. Thus, when the Labour Party became the governing party (1945- 51) those parts of the Fabian programme which were enacted depended on the force of the law and the Government apparatus for their effect within society. We have seen that without the prior movement of society, these two things are without substance in Britain. Thus, the programme remained unenacted in fact though enacted in legality. Because the Labour Party depended for its existence on the support of the trade unions (the conscious expression of the working class as participants in the system of private property) they could ill afford to attack the basis of the trade union movement in the society directly - in conscious conflict. To do this would have undoubtedly been beneficial to the survival and development of the society - it would have been the first step towards establishing socialism in the working class's consciousness as a necessary step for the society to take and what changes socialism would bring. But it would certainly have meant the end of the Labour Party as the second party in British politics. The Liberal Party disintegrated precisely because its most conscious members began this task of taking on the bourgeoisie - of posing the necessity of change in a serious way. Its disintegration was a sign of the political development of the bourgeoisie. The Labour Party has never had the courage or indeed the historical sense to realise that its disintegration in the course of struggling with the trade union movement is a necessary step in the development of socialism. Its leaders - the ILP, Trade Union General Secretaries, and Fabians - have always taken their function of representing the working class as an unalterable fact of life. To the 'left's' howl that the main political priority should be to "Get the Tories Out" and let Labour expose itself we would pose this fact: the Conservative Party has never opposed in any serious way any of the measures of the Labour Party or Lib-Labs which represented the development of society towards a system of socialism. Indeed at many junctures the Conservative Party and the ruling class have pipped the socialists at the post with measures more socialist than the socialists themselves (Joseph Chamberlain's Workmen's Compensation Bill which established the principle of the liability of the employer for any accident to his labour force. The Lib Labs had not dared venture this far.).
Neither the Fabians nor the present ILPers and 'New Unionists' (the International Socialists) nor the political Trade Unionists (the CPGB) have faced up to history. The British ruling class has found the temerity to do so. Instead of using their place in the Government and ideology of the society to act to stabilise and order the society, they are consciously forcing the society to give vent to its disorder. They have posed the problem of the system of private property as one that the society has not yet solved and which it must solve if it is to continue to survive and develop. The tripartite talks are dealing with the fact that not every member or class can have the fruits of their labour. Some of that labour must be appropriated in the form of profit to ensure social reproduction. Because this is Britain this fact is not only being faced by the top of the society, but by the classes in society itself. The television and Press have dealt with the bargaining going on at Chequers and Downing Street openly. Neither the bourgeoisie nor the working class are present as a class at the talks. But both have been privy to what is being discussed. Both Hugh Scanlon and Anthony Barber have reported back publicly. The talks are formally secret - in fact they are the most public discussion of a social issue that Britain has seen since the decision to go to war against Germany was taken. The talks certainly have not posed the choice of socialism or capitalism. But they represent a step towards a consciousness in the working class of how exactly capitalism enables society to survive and develop i.e. through the appropriation of the surplus value of the working class. They have been informed that profits are necessary to secure social reproduction. The capitalist class has had to ask the working class's consent to continue making profit - to increase the amount of surplus value appropriated to ensure the survival of both classes. But this consent has been asked with the proviso that the working class will have a direct, conscious voice from now on in how that surplus is meted out and indeed exactly how much of the produce of the working class will be appropriated. The Left's response to a man has been to fall back into the fold of private property and encourage the working class in going no further. Next month we will deal more fully with the talks and their significance to the problem of transition.