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Reconstituted Socialist Party of Great Britain (1991) Summer School Lectures - The Failure of Political Parties


In this lecture we want to examine the success or failure of the political parties.

This is a reasonable enquiry but it raises the question of how do you measure the success or failure of a political party?

Should we conduct public opinion polls and take a representative sample of the adult population and ask the question: "Do you think the Labour Party or the Tory Party is a success or a failure"?

Some will reply "yes, the Labour party is a success"; some will say "the Tory Party is a success" and there will be about 10 per cent who will say they do not know.

The opinion poll really does not mean much. All it will let you know is a preference for political leaders like Brown or Cameron; a case of personalities and the power of leaders to dominate the electoral process. It is not good enough to measure a political party from such a narrow point of view.

For a Party to succeed it has to survive, grow and gain support. And to do this a political Party must set itself a political strategy, pursue policies and hope the enactment of these policies will have a positive effect on society.

However, there is a huge difference between what a political party manages to introduce as legislation and what it actually achieves in practice. There is a huge gulf between political intent and political result.

Many governments have promised the electors the future benefits of legislation but the policy did not turn out as it had intended and became a disappointment for its supporters.

If you ask Labour supporters have the policies enacted by the Labour Government been a success they would be hard pressed to give a positive reply when faced with the persistent existence of poverty, poor housing, unemployment and strikes for more pay and better working conditions.

And with the present Labour Government there is the added failure of it having to inflict onto the working class numerous wars in which workers kill or are killed.

There is a further complication for the political parties of capitalism. And that is that nothing a government enacts will be good enough for everybody. Government legislation is good for one section of society but not good for another section.

This leads on to an area of politics the main political parties shy away from; the pursuit of class interests and the winners and losers of these class interests.

Conflicting interests.

The problems faced by governments are that we live in a class divided society where there are conflicting interests both within a class and between classes.

When interests rates, for example, rise or fall they have different consequences for the lenders of capital and those wanting to borrow capital for their businesses.

The same problem makes itself felt with the devaluation of a currency; exporters gain at the expense of importers. High rates of inflation effect borrowers differently to lenders and vice versa when inflation is low.

Again some capitalists favour the European Community because it benefits their companies while others take the reverse view.

And of course there is the clash of interests between the capitalist class who own the means of production and the diametrically opposed interests of the working class who are forced to sell their ability to work for a wage or salary.

What we have to do is to measure the actions of governments in relation to class interest against a certain yardstick.

And that yardstick is that we live under capitalism; a class divided society where commodity production and exchange takes place for profit. And the basis of this social system is the private ownership of the means of production which are owned by a minority capitalist class to the exclusion of the working class majority.

Workers receive wages while the propertied class receive the unearned income of rent, interest and profit. A by product of this class divided society is class interest and class struggle.

This yardstick can give us an answer to the failure and to the success of political parties. Capitalism gives us a background by which to judge the success or failure of political parties.

First we can look at the propertied or capitalist class. To what extent have the Liberal and Conservative Parties been a success over the past three centuries?

How can the propertied class judge the success and failure of these two political parties?

From their point of view; that is from their class interests, the Liberals and the Conservatives have been a great success. Both political parties have helped the capitalist class in Britain to weather a severe political storm for over two hundred years and survive with their private property ownership, wealth and privilege intact.

The two main political Parties from the backwash of the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, the 1848 revolutions in Europe and the rise of Chartism in Britain, the two World Wars of 1914-1918 and 1939-1945, the Russian Revolution of 1917 to the political discontent after the First World War, have in the main secured the private ownership of the means of production for the capitalist class.

Furthermore these two political parties helped the capitalist class survive the extension of the franchise to the unpropertied working class majority although many capitalists and their politicians at the time opposed its extension for fear of losing their power and privilege. They wanted to continue the right of only property owners having the vote.

And the Liberal and Tory parties also secured capitalism despite the General Strike of 1926, the Great Depression of 1875-1885 and the Depression of the 1930's.

From the position of the capitalist class they have come through this turbulent period remarkably well although they have had to pay a considerable price for it. There has been the cost in terms of money, running into billions and the cost of lost lives reflected in the names of dead pupils from the 1914-1918 war listed in their thousands on roll of honour in the public schools chapels of the country; a mistake the capitalist class did not make again in the Second World War. And of course they lost their Empire after 1945.

Allowing for these latter difficulties and costs a capitalist looking at the position from the interest of his class the Liberal and Tory parties have both served them well.

The Failure of the Labour Party

What of the Labour party? For over 100 years they have enjoyed over 25 years in office including 13 in recent years. How successful have they been in meeting the objectives of its early founders?

The Labour Party's original founders, not, though, the trade unions, claimed to be Socialist but they rejected the revolutionary Socialism of Marx and the principled Socialism of the Socialist Party of Great Britain. They claimed that the Socialism they advocated could be bought about gradually through reforms and legislation; that capitalism could be eroded by cumulative small changes.

Were the founders of the Labour Party right? There are four tests which can be applied:

* What has been the aim of the Labour Party in achieving this goal?
* What success has the Labour party had in changing capitalism?
* What success has the Labour Party had in running capitalism?
* What contribution has the Labour Party made to the world of political and economic ideas?

1). What has been the achievement of the Labour Party to establish what it believed to be Socialism? Well, it has been a total failure.

The measure of the success of the Liberals and the Tories to retain capitalism is in proportion of the failure of the Labour Party to get rid of the profit system. Over a hundred years since the launch of the Labour Party capitalism is still with us and the aim of the Labour Party is now to run capitalism better than the Tories.

The Labour belief that capitalism can be reformed away flies in the face of the evidence. The capitalism of 1906 based on the private ownership of the means of production and the exploitation of the working class is exactly the same capitalism in 2010.

And there is another aspect of this failure. In the 1918 Labour Party General Election Programme stated that 10% of the population owned 90% of the wealth. By 1936/8 it was 88%; in 1954 it was 79% and in 1960 it was up to 83% (Professor Meade EFFICIENCY, OWNERSHIP AND THE EQUALITY OF PROPERTY 1964). After four periods of Labour governments the wealthiest 10 per cent now own approximately 71 percent of the UK's marketable wealth and the top 25% own 85% (Office for National Statistics 2006).

This, in spite of the Labour Party's original belief that the wealth concentrated in the hands of the minority could be eroded away by social reforms.

Nationalisation was also to be the labour Party's big idea in redistributing wealth from the capitalist class to the working class but it has been a baseless illusion. So too has their social reforms bringing in the so-called "Welfare State", national insurance, death duties, and VAT. The concentrated wealth of the capitalist class has remained largely intact.

2). What of the Labour Party's belief that they have changed capitalism?

Out of all the Parties the Labour Party has littered the statute books with legislation; national insurance, old age pensions, rent control, incomes policies, minimum wage, race and sex discrimination. If it moves the Labour Party wants to legislate it.

But look at these legislative measures again. Most are not specifically Labour Party inventions. Some other Party in Britain or elsewhere in the world has introduced them first. Nationalisation has a longer history than the Labour Party. The Post and Telegraphs were nationalised by other political parties.

Until the 1980's most of the nationalisation policies enacted by the Labour Government were continued because they were seen to be in the interest of the capitalist class as a whole. The Nationalisation of the Railways in 1946 was a Labour Party Policy but the Tories had already passed a Railways nationalisation Act in 1844 when Gladstone was Chancellor of the Exchequer.

National Insurance and Old Age Pensions had been started by Lloyd George's Liberal Party. In turn they had been influenced by the reforms in Bismarck's Germany designed to prevent the spread of Socialism. And Incomes Policies can be found in other capitalist countries. President Nixon introduced a non-statutory incomes policy.

The Minimum Wage was first introduced by Lloyd George and the Coalition Government with respect to the agricultural workers. Monopoly legislation, of which the Labour Party is so proud, were also introduced by other capitalist countries notably the Anti-Trust Legislation in the US. The Sherman Anti-Trust legislation of 1890 and subsequent Acts were invoked by a capitalist government on behalf of the capitalist class as a whole even if it meant the break-up of trusts such as Standard Oil and the imprisonment of directors.

"The class war is over", declared Tony Blair at New Labour's conference in September 1999. He went on to say "The 21st century will not be about the battle between capitalism and socialism, but between the forces of progress and the forces of conservatism". This was in a return to the Liberal radicalism before the Labour Party was established in 1906. The wheel had come full circle.

3). What success has the Labour Party had in running capitalism?

From a Socialist point of view a political party running capitalism has nothing to do with the interest of the working class. Capitalism can only be run in the interests of the propertied capitalist class.

The Late Labour Government Minister, (Lord) Arthur Houghton, once said "Never has any previous government done so much in so short a time to make modern capitalism work" (THE TIMES, 25 April 1967). His claim was that the Labour Government made capitalism more efficient. Of course the Tories denied this. They try to show that Labour is inefficient.

Look it at from the capitalists' point of view. What effect has Labour Governments had on the private ownership of the means of production? None whatsoever.

Ownership has remained the same no matter whether the Labour Party is in power or not. Over the last 13 years until the economic crisis and depression profits have been rising despite of a Labour Government being in power. Profits fluctuate no matter who is in power. Capitalism follows an economic cycle; boom, crisis, stagnation, up-turn and boom again whether Liberal, Tories or Labour are in power.

You could say that the Labour Governments, since they first were elected to power in 1924, have served the capitalist class just as well as the Liberals and Tories. Like the other capitalist political parties they have been unable to stop strikes and indeed like the other parties, they have lost no time in using the troops, or specialist police units, to break strikes when the general or specific interest of the capitalist class is threatened.

What of unemployment. In the running of capitalism, Labour governments have been just as ineffectual as other political parties always leaving office with unemployment higher than they first came into power.

When Labour was elected into power in 1945 the boasted that they were going to ensure Full Employment. The Labour Party adopted the Keynesian policy at its annual conference in 1944 in a report on full employment and financial policy, which declared:

"If bad trade and general unemployment threaten this means that total purchasing power is falling too low. Therefore we should at once increase expenditure…We should give people more money and not less, to spend"

At first it seemed to be the case but gradually unemployment began to rise and the Labour Party could do nothing about it. In fact the low level of unemployment after the War was not due to the Keynesian policies of the Labour party but due to war damage and two of British capitalism competitors; Japan and Germany, having being knocked out of international trade by the War. From 1955 unemployment began to rise and reached 1,500,000 under Callaghan's Labour government.

It was a Labour government which had to reject Keynes and embrace the equally fallacious doctrines of Milton Friedman's Monetarism.

In the late 1960's Professor Robin Mathews wrote a paper based on a careful study of the period and showed that the fluctuations in unemployment had nothing to do with government actions. He wrote:

"Part of the reason for low unemployment in the post-war period…has nothing to do with government policy…" (Why has Britain had Full employment Since the War? THE ECONOMICS JOURNAL, September 1968 p 568).

Professor Mathews put it down to the scarcity of labour in relation to capital and "powerful forces independent of government action making for an investment of unusual proportions" loc cit p. 568)

If we begin with the idea of the Fabians, formed in 1884, to gradually transform capitalism into socialism by a gradual process of reforms then Labour's objective has been a fiasco since nothing came of it. The Fabians believed that by "permeating" the Civil Service and other capitalist institutions with administrators like themselves they could gradually change society. Sidney Webb wrote:

"On every side he (the capitalist) is being registered, inspected, controlled, and eventually superseded by the community; and in the meantime he is compelled to cede for public purposes an ever increasing share of his rent and interest" (FABIAN ESSAYS IN SOCIALISM, 1889)

Capitalism has not been gradually transformed into Socialism. Capitalists may be "registered, inspected and controlled" but they still retain their private ownership of the means of production and their unearned income of rent, interest and profit.

The Fabians were part of a movement at the end of the 19th century who believed they could make capitalism more efficient but described themselves as "radicals" (see The quest for national efficiency: A STUDY IN BRITISH POLITICS AND POLITICAL THOUGHT, 1899 - 19140. G. Searle 1971) much as Blair's administration did. In fact the Labour Party has become just another party of capitalism. When in office it administers capitalism just as if a Liberal or Tory Party were in power.

The Webb's held out for nationalisation as the policy which would give success to the Labour Party. They enshrined the goal of nationalisation in the old Clause 4 in 1918.

The Webb's said that nationalisation would guarantee three things:

* A steady increase in wages
* Workers would behave differently and there would be no more strikes
* Nationalisation would be more efficient than its private counterpart.

By the 1980's nationalisation as a political programme was dead in the water. The working class had been utterly disillusioned by nationalisation and it had few friends with the electorate. There were of course strikes in the nationalised industries and the cost borne by the capitalist class to keep the State industries going in the face of foreign competition was billions of pounds a year.

The consequences of Labour's nationalisation policy showed them to lack any idea of how capitalism operates.

What about the other idea of the Labour Party. That in power they would deal with the "merchants of death". Keir Hardie said in 1906 that one of the first success stories of the Labour Party gaining power was peace and disarmament.

Taking a retrospective view, Hardie's comments that the Labour Party would create conditions of peace and disarmament looks perverse. The first 1924 Labour Government was prepared to use troops to break a threatened transport strike. And they also sanctioned the bombing of tribesman in Iraq; a policy to be repeated some 80 years later when Blair's government sanctioned air strikes in Iraq.

The Labour Party ended up supporting two world wars. And after the war it was governments; Labour and Tory governments, who were the "merchants of death" by supplying arms all over the world; that is; British governments became the main arm dealers not the private manufacturers.

4). What contribution has the Labour Party made to the world of economic and political ideas?

Has the Labour Party contributed any single valuable idea to economic theory? The answer is no.

They rejected the ideas of Marx notably the class struggle even though they are constantly faced with concrete evidence of the class struggle in the form of strikes by workers.

One economic idea they did hold was that they drew a difference between rent and profit on the one hand, which they regarded as a social phenomena and interest on the other which they took as natural applicable to all forms of society.

This they applied to nationalisation. When companies were nationalised after the Second World War the owners lost control and their shares were replaced with interest bearing government bonds.

But the nationalised industries behaved in exactly the same way as they had done under private ownership with no foreseeable difference for the workers. Workers were employed, exploited and fared no better or worse than if they were in the private sector. And of course they were still made redundant when it was no longer profitable to employ them as Tony Benn did with the miners.

When the Bank of England was nationalised in 1946 one wit at the Bank was asked what the difference was for workers employed there. He said none at all except the use of green tape had been replaced by red tape.

And then there is the doctrines of Keynes; a Liberal. From Keynes the Labour Party took the idea that a government could manage capitalism and ensure full employment; that governments could avoid boom and bust.

This idea was not successful. The Labour government does not control the economy. It is the other way around. The economy controls the actions of the government.

There is, of course, one thing governments can do, and in particular Labour governments; and that is to embark on a deliberate policy of inflation. They will of course deny it; they will deny that inflation is caused by an excess of currency in circulation over and above that needed for trade. However it is the main instrument in the raising of prices since 1945.

What of the economic competence of governments. Well the Liberal and Conservative parties do not understand capitalism. However, the Labour Party understands capitalism even less.

Lenin and the Communist Party

What of the Communist Party in Russia? They claimed that if they took over through insurrection, coup d'etat, by plots and the actions of a minority then Socialism could be established over the majority. What they really meant was that Socialism could be established by dictatorship and terrorism. They believed that political measures could be forced through by acts of terror and violence.

This approach was repudiated by the Socialist Party of Great Britain. We say that you can only get Socialism when you have won over the majority of workers to your point of view. Lenin rejected this slow process by saying that if that was the case we would have to wait 500 years.

What Socialists can say about Russia was that it never was a dictatorship of the working class. Nor was it a dictatorship of the Communist Party.

At show trials held in Moscow between 1936 and 1938 dozens of former party leaders were forced to confess to crimes against the Soviet state and executed. By the end of 1938 almost every leading member of the original Bolsheviks has been killed

What existed in the USSR (the logic of Bolshevik policy) was the dictatorship of one man; Stalin. It was a naked dictatorship which had nothing to do with the Socialism of Marx and Engels.

And look what has happened. Having created a dictatorship did Stalin and those who followed him bring Socialism any nearer. Did they use their political power to create Socialists? No, they had to respond to capitalist problems; a restless workforce, unrealizable 5 year plans and the pressures of world capitalism. In short the dictators in Russia have been beset by economic problems generated by capitalism.

And Stalin and his dictatorship were faced with another problem unique to capitalism; war over trade routes, raw resources and strategic sphere of influence.

Dictatorship, violence and Terrorism have been an abject failure in bringing Socialism any nearer.


What of The Socialist Party of Great Britain?

It is self-evident that in creating a mass party of socialists the SPGB has not been successful. We have remained small.

Not that we haven't had problems over the last century or so with the Labour Party calling itself "Socialist" for much of the 20th century and the Bolsheviks describing their system as "Communist" the SPGB case for Socialism has been made that much harder.

So too has the events associated with the collapse of the Berlin Wall which claimed that Marx was "dead and buried" and the politics of New Labour under Tony Blair which has repudiated the class struggle for a mythical "third way". As a result both Communism and Socialism are largely taboo words.

The SPGB also had to reconstitute itself in June 1991 in the face of a determined group of revisionists who wanted to embrace single issue politics; water down the hostility clause by offering "forums" to our opponents, supporting Solidarity and democratic reforms movements.

We can take some comfort in surviving a determined effort to get our meetings closed down, our web site removed from the internet, the suggestion that violence be used against our members and the assistance of capitalism's coercive state machinery called for by our opponents to arrest Socialists for putting the case of the Socialist Party of Great Britain under the bogus pretext of "fraud".

But we can make one claim for our success; and that is we have kept alive the Socialist ideas, political programme and Socialist objective of our founders. We have rejected both the Labour Party's gradualism and pursuit of social reforms and the Communist Party's dictatorship, violence and terrorism.

We would also state that our Socialist case is as valid and sound now as it was in 1904. There is only one way to establish Socialism and that is through the Socialist case advocated by The Socialist Party of Great Britain.

And unlike the Labour Party and Lenin the Labour Party the Socialist Party of Great Britain actually has contributed to Socialist theory.

We have shown:

* Capitalism will not collapse but will continue from crisis to crisis until the working class consciously and politically organise to abolish the profit system.

* Governments not the working class cause inflation.

* That banks cannot create credit at the stroke of a pen

* That a socialist party should not advocate reforms of capitalism

* Recognition that political democracy and parliament can be used for revolutionary ends.

* A Socialist party should not have leaders and should be in the control of the whole membership

* Socialism will be a world-wide system of production and distribution.

* There is no need of a transition period between capitalism and socialism

* Socialism will not initially need a "voucher" system and free access will occur with the establishment of common ownership and democratic control of the means of production by all of society.

* There are no "progressive" wars. All wars under capitalism are to do with raw resources, trade routes and sphere of influence.

* Religion is not a "private" matter but a social problem that acts as a barrier to Socialism. Holding religious beliefs is therefore incompatible in being a Socialist.

* From the application of Marx's materialist conception of history, political theory of class struggle and the Labour theory of Value, Russia was not Socialist and Lenin and the Bolsheviks were not Marxists.

* Clarifying, through Marx's Labour Theory of Value, the question of productivity and the fact that capitalism deliberately under-produces.

* The naivety, waste of time and undemocratic nature of producing utopian schemes and detailed structures of socialist administration, production and distribution.

If workers do not come around to agree with the Socialist case and subsequently take conscious and political action then capitalism with all its social problems will remain.

There is no other way of establishing Socialism than through a principled Socialist party with Socialism and only Socialism as its objective.

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