Pieter Lawrence

Labour's head-banging exercise

Source: Socialist Standard, July 1989.
Transcription: Socialist Party of Great Britain.
HTML Markup: Adam Buick
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2016). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit "Marxists Internet Archive" as your source.

Popular working class politics is in a state of great confusion. There is uncertainty, disillusion, a prevailing sense of failure and, above all, a lack of clear direction.

It is not a case of uncertainty arising from a question of what to do next, after making great progress in the solution of problems. No-one would say that. Indeed, the great social contradictions which beset society are still with us. We have millions of unemployed; there is poverty and homelessness; in every modern state there is a vast arsenal of weaponry which threatens our annihilation. We have the obscene waste where vast resources are allocated to the military when people are starving and then the human priorities should be demanding that we build houses, improve our medical services, clean up our environment, and undertake many other lines of social action to serve needs.

Irrational Politics

If we look at the present times in which these problems are being expressed we find that this is in the language of what might appear to be madmen. You've only got to listen to the news on any day and hear the talk about the trade deficit . . . interest rates . . . productivity . . . wage settlements in relation to increased prices . . . the strength of the currency . . . the level of government spending.

Most people don't understand any of it but the professional politicians who run the system are permanently trapped in this economic gibberish which is totally irrelevant to what has to be done in terms of solving the social problems we face. To see its irrelevance you've only got to look at the record. For the past hundred years this has been the language of those who run the system, yet it has never helped to clarify the nature of our problems. Nor has it ever led to any practical action which could solve them. Yet it goes on being repeated, year after year.

One of the reasons for this political irrationality is because politics has become dissociated from experience. The kind of arguments which went on at the last Labour Party Conference all too place as if the past never existed. The rational way to begin an understanding of our problems should be to examine what did happen in the past and to ask important questions about it: What were we hoping to achieve in the past? What action did we think would be effective? What happened as a result of that action? What were the reasons why we failed? What lessons should be learned from that failure?

Neil Kinnock's Ambition

That doesn't happen and the example of the Labour Party can suggest some reason why. The professional politicians who are in the main controlling positions in the Labour Party and who get their living by being MPs don't want to face up to the past because it only brings out their failures. They've got a vested interest in forgetting it: they want to go on being professional politicians in positions of power. They want to form a government.

They are desperate to form a government. You've only got to see Neil Kinnock on television and in other places. He will say and do anything to form a government. He'll run the market system better than the Tories—those are his own words—just to be Prime Minister of a Labour government. He can't afford to think about the past. He wants to forget it and pretend that it doesn't exist. He needs to create the illusion that he has a unique opportunity to solve our problems which no other politician has ever had before. But we can't just blame him. He is only one of those who are trapped in the prevailing state of political neurosis where action is dissociated from experience.

Even the ordinary constituency workers at what they call the grass roots level whose time and energy keep the Labour Party going want to forget the past. They don't want to face up to the fact that their hours of campaigning to get Labour MPs elected in the past all came to nothing. Indeed, if they looked at it honestly and objectively, they would have to confront the fact that it didn't just come to nothing: the Labour government between 1974 and 1979 did all the things which were the opposite of what they said they would do.

The Facts

What are the facts? Have a look at the 1974 Labour Party manifesto.

They said they would solve the problem of unemployment. What happened? Under the Labour government unemployment doubled. It went from 630,000 to over 1,300,000. This was the opposite to what they said they'd do.

They said they would increase the proportion of national resources allocated to the health service, education, welfare, pensions and other benefits. What happened? Under Callaghan as Prime Minister and Healey as Chancellor they cut spending on all these services.

They said that with an expanding economy industrial relations would be improved. What happened? The country was beset with the chaos of strikes—the notorious winter of discontent which actually led to the Tories under Thatcher being voted into power.

They said they would defend the poor against the rich. What happened? When they took office, wages and salaries accounted for 72 per cent of all distributed income. Profits took 28 per cent. When they left office, wages and salaries accounted for 68 per cent and profits took 32 per cent. This again was the opposite of what they said would happen.

So, on all these counts—unemployment, government spending, industrial strife, and the distribution of income—things were worse when they left office in the 1979 election.

The Problem is Capitalism

There is now supposed to be a great debate taking place in the Labour Party since they don't know what they stand for any more. In any rational response, the first thing you would expect is that they confront the reasons for their past failures. But they're not doing that. Their so-called policy review is a public relations exercise. All that's come out of it is the same old failed methods. It's another phase in the same old process of political head-banging, with Neil Kinnock as their leading head-banger. Not that he cares. All he wants is to be Prime Minister, as he's made abundantly clear.

For workers, the problem is capitalism. We produce all the wealth—in fact we run the useful parts of society from top to bottom—but we don't get all the benefits of our production of goods and our running of services and we don't have direct control of the society we run. Our economic function under capitalism is to produce wealth for an exploiting and parasitical class, the capitalist class.

Since the beginning of the century, when the Labour Party was formed, these basic facts haven't changed. We had capitalism then and we've got capitalism now. Workers were exploited them we're exploited now. The rich had luxury then and they've got it now. Workers had the problems of housing, making ends meet, and economic insecurity then and we've got the same problems now. This is in spite of the fact that we produce every bit of useful wealth that becomes available and run all the useful services that people need.

Capitalism produced for profit then and it produces for profit now. When there was no prospect of profit then, workers became unemployed. It is exactly the same now. At the turn of the century the privileges of the rich were based on their ownership of the means of production and all natural resources and on their control over workers through the state machine. It is exactly the same now.

The Socialist Solution

It isn't enough just to have a clear understanding of what causes the problems of the working class; we must also have a very clear understanding of how they could be solved. That solution is socialism.

Socialism means a society based on common ownership, democratic control, and production solely for human need.

By common ownership we mean a society where all means of production and all natural resources will be held in common by the whole community. In socialism there will be no individuals or groups in society exercising ownership rights of any kind over manufacturing industry, energy supply, transport or communications, nor over land, oil, metal or mineral deposits. All these will be available for use by society for providing for people's needs.

By democratic control we mean a system of administration where social policy and action will be decided by the democratic decisions of the community. Communities will be free to make their decisions about what needs to be done and, within the limitations of what is practicable, will organise social resources so as to achieve the objectives of those democratic decisions. This will entail the conversion of the present state machinery, which represents the power of the capitalists to maintain their monopoly of the means of life, into the required democratic institutions.

Production solely for human needs will replace the present capitalist system of exploitation where workers sell their mental and physical abilities for wages or salaries and produce commodities for sale on markets. Production solely for human need on the basis of common ownership will mean people cooperating to produce goods and maintain services directly for needs and in line with democratic decisions. This will be a practical and straightforward system of useful work producing useful goods free from the economic constraints of production for profit, without any exchange of any kind and without therefore the use of money.

Production will be humanised in the sense that human beings won't have a price put on either their ability to work or the product of their work. Jobs won't have a price on them, nor will goods, nor will needs. Instead of working for wages people will cooperate, and this will bring work under the control of those who carry it out. It will be the self-determined activity of individuals responding to the needs of the community of which they form a part and who have the responsibility and the real power of decision-making and action.

That is the sane system we must establish and it is the only sensible definition of socialism.