Eamon Dyas writes for Labour Affairs magazine. You can subscribe to Labour Affairs online at https://labouraffairs.com/.
We are living in interesting times as we witness the death throes of one world and the birth of a new one. But we, who are old enough, have lived through similar times in the past and looking back with the benefit of hindsight the main lesson that comes out of this is the fact that those interesting times in the past did not result in any significant re-assessment of the continuing relevance of socialism for the working class. The failure to undertake such a task in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union is probably forgivable as the impact of that event was seismic on the left and proved too disorienting for the left to make any real sense of what this meant. Time and subsequent experience therefore makes it incumbent on us to ensure that these latest interesting times become the opportunity for a re-examination of the purpose of socialism in the context of the evolved British working class.
Socialists have a particular responsibility to make this effort. We make claim to possess a perspective that has at its core the short and long-term interests of the working class. Given that the perspective of socialism is one that has been framed in terms of an ideology we need to look at the circumstances that gave rise to that ideology and the premise on which that ideology has been based. It seems to me that the ideology is rooted in two things – a inherited understanding of what it is that constitutes the nature of the working class and the nature of the State. What is significant about this inherited understanding is that historically both the working class and the state have been assumed to be immutable. I omit the reforming labourites from this as it is directed at those who are represented by what is known as revolutionary socialism.
But contrary to that inherited understanding, experience has shown that neither the working class or the British State has been immutable. The working class has never been immutable. In the world from which the modern ideology of socialism emerged the working class had gone through the trauma of industrialisation. The arrival of the industrial proletariat showed that the working class was a developing entity and its interests far from immutable. But, with the emergence of the industrial proletariat the working class began to be seen through the prism of that component of the class. So, when socialists looked at the working class in late 19th century England it saw it primarily as a mass of manual workers given coherence and direction by the industrial proletariat. It was acknowledged that the working class was more than the proletariat but it was the proletariat, because of its particular relationship with the modern means of production, that provided the class with the only means of advancing its overall interests. The interests of the industrial proletarian, expressed through the power of the State, would become the lode stone guiding the wider interests of the class. In other words, the arrival of the industrial proletariat represented the apotheosis of the working class. There was nothing beyond that in terms of class destiny and the arrival of the industrial proletariat was the last stage in the progression towards a classless society. Societies beyond the industrial proletariat were ones that had experienced the eradication of all classes. In so far as the immutability of the concept of working class was concerned it was defined in terms provided by the emergence of the industrial proletariat.
But, belief in that immutability has always been based on a false premise. Where, for instance is it in today’s Britain. The element that could still be defined as the industrial working class is a shadow of what it once was and what it once was proved to be incapable of following what the proponents of socialism believed to be its historical role in the context of the state.
Let us look at what the world of the British working class was like at latter part of the nineteenth century. Here is a description of May Day 1892 in Manchester – the city where Engels went to live in order to get a better understanding of the English working class. It is important to remind ourselves of that world for it is from that world that the modern ideology of socialism emerged:
“A south wind puffed the clouds across the sky and delicate shafts of spring sunlight glanced through, as a young man on a white horse rode off in front of a white ensign embroidered with the words, “Work for all, overwork for none”. Behind him came the Manchester Fabians, the railwaymen and their banner “Unity is Strength”, the tailors, the bakers and confectioners, the spindle and flyer makers. The Social Democrats grimly bore the unadorned Red Flag. The Labour Church advanced to the tune of “A day’s march nearer home”, beneath a blue banner with white lettering “God is our King”. The dressers, dyers and finishers flaunted “Equality by right, justice to all”. Behind them were horsehair and fibre workers, enginemen and cranemen, the men of the Navvies’ and Bricklayers’ Union, and in the rear a contingent of the scorned “Lib-Lab” Labour Electoral Association.
“Twelve bands broke up the mass into companies, which marched six deep through a great throng of working people lining Oldham Street and Piccadilly. The women cried “Bravo!” as the procession passed, and the men stamped their clogs, and spat, and wondered. There was a halt while the procession from Stafford came into line. Then there were only the bands and the banners to keep up their spirits as they marched through the silent, respectable crowds in Portland Street and Oxford Road. But as they reached their own land, the long grey vista of the Stretford Road, they were met with cheer upon cheer from men, women and their children swarming out of the wretched cottages and the narrow courts. There were cries of delight for every brave slogan, for the coloured banners and the bands, and the crowds fell in behind, singing and laughing and chattering as if England had arisen at last and the long, long night was really over.
“Into Alexandra Park they went, where the buds were bursting on the trees, and the sun shone, and the police stood stolidly about the six platforms. There were Comrade Sidney Webb of the London County Council, and Don Roberto, Cunninghame Graham, with his pointed beard and his silver wit, looking as if he had just stepped out of a Velasquez painting, William Johnson, the dashing Prince Rupert who commanded the Shop Assistants. Union, the little fighting cock Alfred Settle, Horsfall of the Workman’s Times staff, and half a dozen more. They spoke, and the crowds cheered. No matter what they said, the crowds cheered, for it was May-day, and the banners curled bravely in the wind.
“Blatchford was chairman at the first platform, a covered cart like a camel’s cage, through the bars of which he smiled his heart out upon the happy crowds. He had a headache and a bad cold, and no one heard his speech except the police. But when he cried, “Hands up for Socialism!” every hand was raised. Before nightfall, between 60,000 and 100,000 working men and women had committed themselves to demanding nationalisation of the land, an eight-hour day, payment of M.P’s, shorter parliaments, adult suffrage, and an independent Labour party.” (Robert Blatchford: portrait of an Englishman, by Laurence Thompson. Published by Victor Gollancz Ltd., London, 1951, pp.86-87)
In the meantime, the immutable British State had also proved to be far from immutable. Such was the prominence of all things socialist that towards the end of the century Lord Harcourt was said to have claimed that “we are all socialists now”. At the same time the more radical elements of the Liberal Party had begun to adapt to the world of organised labour and allied themselves with labour interests as a means of channelling the movement along lines that did not threaten the state. In the process of this channelling those Liberal elements as well as socialists were instrumental in the emergence of what came to be known as Municipal Socialism. However, the advanced thinking in the Conservative Party was also already evolving along lines that would enable the State to adopt to this new situation. Since the time of Disraeli the Conservative Party had been aware of the need of the British State to bend with the prevailing social forces if it was to survive. And the move of the anti-Gladstonian liberals towards the Tories was to add impetus to this tendency. In fact, on 29 April 1892, a couple of days before the May Day celebrations, Lord Randolph Churchill, in a letter to Arnold White, the Liberal-Unionist candidate for the Tyneside Division of Northumberland, had this to say:
“The labour community is carrying on at the present day a very significant and instructive struggle. It has emancipated itself very largely from the mere mechanism of party politics. It realises that it now possesses political power to such an extent as to make it independent of either party in the State, and the struggle which it is now carrying on is less against capital, less one of wages or division of profits, but rather one for the practical utilisation in its own interests of the great political power which it has acquired. The labour interest is now seeking to do for itself what the landed interest and the manufacturing capitalist did for themselves when each in turn commanded the disposition of State policy. Our land laws were framed by the landed interests for the advantage of the landed interest; our foreign policy was directed by that interest to the same end. Political power passed very considerably from the landed interest to the manufacturing capitalist interest, and our whole fiscal system was shaped by this latter power to its own advantage, foreign policy being also made to coincide. We are now come, or are coming fast, to a time when labour laws will be made by the labour interest for the advantage of labour. The regulation of all the conditions of labour by the State, controlled and guided by the labour vote, appears to be the ideal aimed at, and I think it extremely probable that a foreign policy which sought to extend, by tariff reforms over our colonies, and even over other friendly States, the area of profitable barter of produce will strongly commend itself to the mind of the labour interest. Personally, I can discern no cause for alarm in this prospect, and I believe that on this point you and I are in agreement.
“Labour in this modern movement has against it the prejudices of property, the resources of capital, and all the numerous forces – social, professional, and journalistic – which those prejudices and resources can Influence. It is our business, as Tory politicians, to uphold the Constitution. If under the Constitution as it now exists, and as we wish to see it preserved, the labour interest finds that it can obtain Its objects and secure its own advantage, then that interest will be reconciled to the Constitution, with just faith in it, and will maintain it. But if it should unfortunately occur that the Constitutional party, to which you and I belong, are deaf to hear and slow to meet the demands of labour, are stubborn in opposition to those demands, and are persistent in the habit of ranging themselves in unreasoning and short-sighted support of all the past rights of property and capital, then the result may be that the Labour interest may identify what it will take to be a defect in the Constitutional party with the Constitution itself, and in a moment of indiscriminate impulse may use its power and sweep both away.” (Glasgow Herald, 2 May 1892, p.8)
[White, incidentally, was an anti-semite who published “The Modern Jew” in 1899 and went on to be a rabid anti-German in the run up to the First World War.]
So successful were both the Liberals and the Tories in injecting the necessary element of flexibility into the British State that within just over a quarter of a century of the 1892 May Day in Manchester that most of the demands emanating from the platforms in Alexandra Park had been conceded.
In the meantime, there occurred an event in Russia that provided a new focus for the socialists. This event became the means by which future generations would be inspired to appreciate what could be done by a state operating in the interests of the working class. However, the inspiration also had the effect of diverting attention from the fact that the Russian Revolution was, in many ways, a freak event and happened because of the way in which the stresses in Russian society had been put under pressure because of the First World War. The failure to understand that essential component of what went into the Russian Revolution led to the illusion that it could be used as a model for other societies in other circumstances if only the industrial proletariat could take command of the state. Although some allowance was made for the different circumstances operating in different countries the basic idea of a working class interest defined by an immutable industrial proletariat confronting an immutable state continued to guide the thinking. The state could only fully serve working class interests if it was taken over and made to serve the immutable interests of the industrial proletariat. Although there was an acknowledgement that the state could in some circumstances be made to serve aspects of the working class interest activities directed towards achieving those limited objectives were diminished by a socialism that always had its focus on bigger things.
As long as the Soviet Union existed, there was a Monstrance to which socialists could pay homage and, in the process, continue to believe in the critical relationship of an immutable industrial proletariat with the state. But then we had 1991 and In Britain, the final triumph of Thatcherism had by then resulted in the effective destruction of the industrial proletariat as a political force in British society. The result of the combination of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the destruction of the industrial working class should have generated a serious examination by socialists of how socialism can remain relevant. But there was no such examination. Instead, some who were disappointed at having to face the new reality retreated into an agitational mode that was directed at improving society through the propagation of the culture of “Rights”. However, by then the most important rights had already been conceded by the State and all that was left was the task of seeking out new examples of oppression to champion. With that as their goal they have embarked on an unending crusade to discover ever new examples of oppressed people. This also permits such elements on the left, disappointed by the refusal of the working class to perform its historical task, the licence to cast the actual working class – a class eager to hold onto the last vestiges of family and community life – into the role of reactionaries.
In other cases, the left has responded to the challenge of the new reality by clinging more tightly to old certainties and refuse to look beyond them. Typical among this mentality is the continued espousal of the mantra that reform is merely the means by which the establishment can buy off the working class and diminish its revolutionary potential. We saw how destructive this particular position can be of working class interests in the way that the left rejected what was the most significant concession by the State to the working class in modern times – the worker’s control element in the 1977 Bullock Report – and in the process open the door to Thatcherism.
What then are the core issues that needs to direct socialist thinking in the future. Primary among them must be a willingness to support any advance in working class rights in ways that are devoid of judgments that are based in old ideological positions. Secondly, must be an acknowledgment of the validity of working class fears about things like immigration and the way that identity politics is eroding family and community values. Thirdly, must be a turning away from the idea that the State is the only legitimate arena for socialists to pursue the class struggle and an acceptance that in some circumstances, other arenas and local government can be the best means of advancing working class interests. While the power of the State will always remain a defining element in the advancement of workers’ rights history has shown that such rights are more likely to be gained on the back of significant social pressure and more difficult for the State to retract in such circumstances.
These objectives may not possess the exciting ingredient of traditional socialism but the pursuit of them may have the potential to bring into working class politics a wider range of people than any stubborn adherence to traditional socialism is now capable of doing.
Eamon Dyas, June 2023