Archive for September, 2010

Sylvia Pankhurst – The potato pickers

September 12, 2010 3 comments

S. Pankhurst, Votes for Women, 28 January 1919, in K. Dodd (ed.), A Sylvia Pankhurst reader (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993), pp. 34 -36

Let us not look at ourselves, but onwards and take strength from the leaf and the signs of the field. He is indeed despicable who cannot look onwards to the ideal life of man. Not to do so is to deny our birthright of mind. – Richard Jeffries

It was a fresh, bright, autumnal morning, with the sun shining, and the patches of strong, clear, blue sky showing bravely between the driving clouds. A lark was singing overhead, and the ploughman was driving his team across the field. The man whistled, and the sides of fat, well-groomed horses glistened, and every time they went up and down the field the ploughshare cut straight through the heart of one of the weed-covered ridges where the withered stalks of the potato plants were growing, and left behind it in their place an open furrow, where the potatoes could be seen lying amid the moist dank earth.

And following in the wake of the plough there was a long line of women stooping and bending, bending and stooping, over the furrows, groping with their hands in the loose soil, and gathering up the potatoes as they came.

There were three or four men in the field also, the overlookers, who stood talking and smoking by the hedge, and from time to time carried away the filled potato baskets that the women had placed ready, and emptied them into the potato ‘pit’.

Hour after hour the women went on toiling with bent backs and eyes fixed on the ground, until at last one of the men shouted to them to stop, for it was half-past twelve.

Then the potato pickers rose, and straightened themselves, and came towards me where I sat watching them, and I saw them clearly for the fist time. They were poor, miserable creatures, clad in vile, nameless rags, sometimes pinned, sometimes tied round them with other rags or its of string. There were old, old women, with their skin all gnarled and wrinkled, and their purple lips all cracked. There were young women with dull white sullen faces, many with scars or black bruises round they eyes, and swollen, shapeless lips. Their hair was all matted and neglected, and every woman’s eyes were fiery red.

They came and squatted on the piles of straw laid ready for covering the potatoes, and began each one to eat her meal of bread and jam or bread and cheese, or of dry bread alone. As they did so they shouted to each other, in loud harsh voices coarse, ribald jokes and oaths, and then laughed at them with awful laughter. When they had finished eating, the elder women sat talking together more quietly, and smoking short clay pipes, whilst the younger women either lay about half-asleep in the straw or chased each other across the field with rough horseplay.

At one o’clock the men called them back to their work again, and so they went on till five, when they gathered together their tagged shawls and outer garments, and noisily left the field.

Beside the three straw-covered lorries on which they were driven back to their homes in Berwick-on-Tweed, I saw them standing huddled together, these poor, degraded creatures lower than the beast of the field.

I left them, and turned away down the quiet lane between the woods, where the red light of the setting sun shone upon the tree trunks and the moss and the pine needles at their feet, but as I came upon the open road again they overtook me and drove away past me shouting and singing as though to make the sweet country-side around them hideous with their noise.

The sky was diffused with a glorious pale gold, and silhouetted against it the leaves and stems showed with delicate distinctness the beauty of their myriad shapes. All the hush and awe of the evening was around me, but still my thoughts were busy with those poor, dreadful women, and my heart ached.

They had gone back to the slums where they stay except when there is potato or fruit-picking or some other work of the kind for them to do. The town of Berwick is very sordid. It has more than its share of tramps and vagabonds. This is partly because it is a great centre for the potato merhants, who give casual employment to these poor waifs and strays, and partly too, they say, because it is a garrison town.

Oh, can it be that we women would have let so many things go wrong in this world, and should we have let it be so hard a place for the unfortunate, if we had had the governing power that men have had?

The light faded, and the stars began to show, and as I climbed up the steep hill between the dark and overhanging trees there came a swinging, marching tune with a wail behind it into my ears, and the words of an old folk-song:-

Oh cursed be the cruel wars that ever did they rise.

And out of Merry England pressed many a lad likewise!

They pressed young Harry from me, they pressed my brothers three,

They took them to the cruel wars in high Germany.

The little house at the top of the hill looked warm and cosy as one came in out of the darkness , but the woman who sat knitting there by the fire was sad, because the children she had loved and worked for had gone out into the world, and left her. She was lonely, and had not enough to do to occupy her thoughts.

Yet if she could realise it, they great Woman’s Movement calls her as it calls all other women, and out in the world there is a work that waits for her,

And endless succession of labour, under the brightness of summer, under the gloom of winter. To my though it is a sadness even in the colour and glow of this hour of sun, this ceaseless labour, repeating the furrow, reiterating the blow, the same furrows, the same stroke – shall we never know how to lighten it, how to live with the flowers, the swallows, the sweet delicious shade, and the murmur of the stream? – Richard Jeffries.

The Lure of the Plan: The Impact of the Five-Year Plans in Britain

September 6, 2010 2 comments

P. Flewers, ‘The Lure of the Plan: The Impact of the Five-Year Plans in Britain’, Critique, Vol. 36, No. 3, December 2008, pp. 343-361

This article investigates the impact of the initial Soviet Five- Year Plans upon political discourse in Britain, and in particular its impact upon the left. It shows that a broad swathe of political opinion in Britain was encouraged by the impact of the crash of 1929 to accept the need for the state to intervene in economic affairs, and that the growth of the Soviet economy under the initial Five- Year Plans played a catalytic role in accentuating this opinion. Many commentators who rejected the political norms of the Soviet regime nonetheless considered that valuable lessons could be drawn in respect of economic policy in Britain. The article then looks at the attitudes held on the left towards planning, and concludes that the idea that socialist planning must involve democratic decision-making on the part of producers and consumers was submerged beneath a technocratic concept of e1ite economic management, and that the rise of this idea of planning during the 19305 was a component of the defeat of the wave of working-class radicalism that had erupted at the end of the First World War.

Soviet assembly-line worker works on the axle of a Moskvich car, made by AZLK.

Apart from a small if vociferous group of free marketeers, economic planning became a watchword in Britain for broad swathes of economists, social scientists, politicians and commentators during the interwar period, a time which encompassed the crash of 1929 and the ensuing slump, which saw production in the capitalist world drop by over a third, and the initial Soviet Five-Year Plans, which permitted the transformation of the Soviet Union into a vast industrial power. How far did the dramatic events in the Soviet Union influence the debate around planning?

Various authorities have stated that the economic changes in the Soviet Union strongly inspired the British left in the 1930s.[1] Others, including observers at the time, felt that the impact of the Five-Year Plans went much further, and, as the economist Michael’ Polanyi put it, was ‘largely responsible for the popularity of planning in the Western countries’.[2] Writing in 1946, E.H. Carr stated: ‘The economic impact of the Soviet Union on the rest of the world may be summed up in the single word “planning”.’ He added that many countries had imitated the Soviet idea of set period economic plans, and concluded: ‘Certainly, if “we are all planners now”, this is largely the result, conscious or unconscious, of the impact of Soviet practice and Soviet achievement.'[3] Yet Carr was not always so convinced of the centrality of Soviet planning to Western economic discourse. In September 1939, he stated that it was ‘not any belief in the success of Soviet economics, or any desire to emulate it’, that was ‘causing such extensive inroads’ into the system of private enterprise, as economic developments in all countries were taking a similar path,[4] and in 1951 he emphasised that processes at work in the capitalist world, predating the slump of 1929, had made ‘the conception of a national economy’ and ‘by the same token some kind of planning authority’ an acceptable part of Western political and economic theory and practice.[5] Carr’s drastic shifts of opinion indicate that the question of the influence of the Soviet Union upon economic debate in Britain in the 1930s is by no means clear-cut.

The Lure of the Plan

It is a common misconception to view the discussion of the Soviet Union during the 1930s merely as an exchange between an uncritical pro-Soviet lobby on the one side, and a mirror-image anti-communist bloc on the other. There was a broad swathe of opinion between these two poles, incorporating moderate conservatives, pro-planning liberals and moderate social democrats, that praised various social and economic measures being implemented by the Soviet regime, and who saw the Soviet Union as at least a potentially beneficial factor in international affairs, whilst maintaining a firm opposition to its authoritarian political norms.

The rise of this centre ground was spurred on by one of the factors that lay behind the rise of the pro-Soviet lobby, namely, the contrast between the crisis in the West following the Wall Street crash and the tremendous expansion of the Soviet economy under the First Five-Year Plan. Nevertheless, this broad appreciation of certain Soviet policies would not have occurred had there not existed in Britain and other Western countries a growing intellectual trend favouring state intervention into the economy and social life. Sections of the reformist left had long recommended the nationalisation of major industries, particularly coal-mining and the railways, under some form or another of state administration. Even in Britain, the concepts of laissez-faire had \ never been fully put into practice, and the much-vaunted ‘night-watchman’ state, playing a very limited social role, was never a total reality. By the mid-19th century, calls were being made in Britain by some capitalist spokesmen for the state regulation of certain infrastructural industries, most notably the railways, on the basis that the limiting of untrammelled competition amongst them served the interests of capitalism in general. A combination of popular concern and the recognition of the overall needs of capital had led to rudimentary welfare measures being introduced in Britain by the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.

The mobilisation by the British state of the national economy during the First World War represented a major turning point. The sheer magnitude of the war effort forced the government to intervene deeply in the economic life of the country, and in a process which one historian later called ‘a strange lesson in state socialism’,[6] shipping was requisitioned, railways were put under state control, and by 1917 essential industries were also being controlled by the state. Although during the war and for a while afterwards, laissez-faire remained the ideological norm, as state intervention was seen largely as a short-term or emergency matter, rather than a longterm or permanent policy, and most of the wartime measures were dismantled soon after hostilities ceased, a crucial step had been taken. As Trevor Smith puts it, government initiatives during the war had been an ‘object lesson’ in showing how the state could intervene into the economy, and a ‘mortal blow’ had been struck against the concepts of a ‘night-watchman’ state and laissez-faire economics.[7] The experience of wartime measures of state intervention started to have some impact, and Jose Harris’ assertion that there was ‘no corresponding change in ideas about state legitimacy’ has to be treated with caution.[8] Although interwar governments were rather wary about implementing state interventionist measures, various welfare reforms were put into practice, and certain important state concerns were established both before and after the crash of 1929.[9]

More important, however, was the substantial shift in opinion on the issue of state intervention that took place in Britain between the two world wars. A leading advocate of managed capitalism, John Maynard Keynes, found a growing audience and a champion in David Lloyd George, whose accession as the leader of the Liberal Party in 1926 signified the replacement of laissez-faire by state intervention as a leading Liberal ethos. Similar if more limited moves started within the Conservative Party, as such young Turks as Harold Macmillan and Robert Boothby started to call for state intervention and an economic ‘general staff’. If at first the idea of the necessity of state intervention was very much the property of a minority trend within British political and economic circles, it became more generally accepted through ‘the necessary psychological snap'[10] of the great crash of 1929 and the ensuing slump. This was the point at which the call for planning started to be heard at practically all points across the political spectrum.[11] And if the acceptance of such ideas was uneven-for instance, Oswald Mosley’s call in 1930 for a thoroughgoing programme of state intervention under a committee of experts was rejected by the Labour Party[12]-within a short time various ginger groups, including the Socialist League, the New Fabian Research Bureau and the Society for Socialist Inquiry and Propaganda, appeared within the Labour PartY, all calling for a wide range of interventionist policies. By the mid-1930s, Labour’s official manifestos called for economic planning, thus taking in some of these groups’ ideas, and, ironically, elements of Mosley’s programme, although by now he was busy advocating a fascist brand of collectivism. Other pro-planning groups appeared during the early 1930s, including the Industrial Reorganisation League, formed by various industrialists, and the Next Five Years Group, which incorporated Macmillan and other prominent thinkers, and Political and Economic Planning, which published an extensive series of monographs on the subject.

At a time when sober commentators were saying that capitalism had ‘nearly ceased to function as an efficiently working machine’,[13] planning was regarded as the means of saving it;[14] indeed, John Stevenson considers that ‘the most significant feature of the interwar years was the acceptance by “middle opinion” of the need for planning without the destruction of the capitalist system,.[15] It can thus be easily understood, when the efficacy of laissez-faire was being widely questioned even by supporters of economic individualism,[16] how many people whose commitment to liberal democracy led them forthrightly to reject the Soviet political system, nonetheless considered that there were important lessons that Western governments could learn from studying the economic and social policies of the Soviet regime, even if they may not have fully endorsed the New Statesman‘s plaintive cry of ‘When shall we have a Five- Years Plan for Great Britain?’ [17] The conditional nature of this endorsement must be emphasised. In recognising that state intervention was here to stay and to oppose it was ‘folly’, the Spectator warned against the lure of Stalinist and fascist brands of collectivism, and posed its programme of ‘ordered progress’ as ‘the only effective defence against the far more revolutionary proposals of extreme right and extreme left alike’,[18] a view that was heartily endorsed by the Economist and Macmillan.[19]

Assessing the Five-Year Plans

The genesis and history of the Five-Year Plans need not be relayed in detail here; suffice to say that the originally fairly modest proposals for economic development were abandoned in favour of a programme of ambitious growth targets that commenced in October 1928, and which was itself vastly accelerated from March 1929.[20]

The vast transformations that took place under the First Five-Year Plan could not be ignored in the outside world. Needless to say, the pro-Soviet lobby was impressed; even in its earliest days, there could be no doubt of the success of the plan. In late 1929, Rajani Palme Dutt, the main theoretician of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), compared the ‘pitiful’ reforms of Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour government, ‘a medley of minor and unrelated oddments’, to ‘the gigantic purposeful offensive in every field of the Five-Years Plan in the Soviet Republic’,[21] whilst one of his lieutenants had already explained that the plan was ‘an object lesson to the world’ of how socialism could beat capitalism.[22] Maurice Dobb provided an optimistic assessment. He declared that through ‘conscious organisation and planning from the centre’, and with the ‘initiative and active cooperation’ of the masses, including the voluntary collectivisation of the peasants, the Soviet regime was completing Russia’s industrial revolution ‘at a quite unprecedented speed’. Indeed, the Five-Year Plan was doing so well in showing the superiority of planning that it was now to be completed in just four years.[23]

Although, on account of their gargantuan tome Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation, we have customarily and justifiably viewed Sidney and Beatrice Webb as gross apologists for Stalinism, they were initially very hostile to Bolshevism, seeing the Soviet republic as ‘the “servile state” in being … a servile state run by fanatics’ who had no respect for ‘the “bourgeois fetish” of personal freedom’.[24] What almost certainly pushed the Webbs into eventually dropping most of their qualms and qualifications about the Soviet Union was the great economic crash in the USA in 1929, its after-effects around the world and the feeble efforts of the Labour government to deal with them in Britain, and the contrast posed by the great advances the Soviet Union was making under the First Five-Year Plan. As the plan swung into action, Beatrice Webb recognised that only in the Soviet Union was there a government which understood that a state could not ‘guarantee livelihood except under the conditions of a managed population’. [25] She was dividing the Soviet population between leaders and led, or, more accurately, managers and managed, with the implication that the former had the right to ‘manage’ the latter, and there is something sinister in her emphasis of the word ‘managed’ in view of her acknowledgement as late as February 1931 of the brutal way in which Stalin’s regime ‘managed’ its population.[26] Their huge book, which to this day symbolises the ‘Red Decade: praises the Five-Year Plans for enabling the Soviet Union to end vested interest, to ensure that a greater proportion of the nation’s resources, both material and human, could be put into operation and used more efficiently, and to overcome the wasteful competition, unemployment and boom-and-slump cycle of capitalism. Moreover, as the overthrow of capitalism ended the exploitation of the working class and thus removed the basis for class struggle, there were no reasons for workers to go on strike. They were certain that the growth of inequalities would not lead to the emergence of new classes, and they assured their readers that the existence of differing social strata (as opposed to ‘distinct social classes’, which had disappeared) merely showed a functional difference amongst the ‘intellectual leaders’, lesser post-holders and workers, and were of little importance.[27]

Many observers who were critical of aspects of the Soviet political system nonetheless applauded the tremendous changes that had taken place. Herbert Morrison, a leading member of the Labour Party and a stern opponent of Bolshevism, enthused over the results of the plan:

The efforts of Soviet Russia … to evolve a plan of economy on a collectivist basis is one of the most interesting and important contributions to the practical handling of modern industrial problems. The Soviet government, in applying the principles of public ownership and management to the extent it considers to be practicable, is conducting the greatest economic experiment of our time over a vast territory inhabited by a huge population.[28]

Morrison’s colleague Hugh Dalton called it ‘a most astonishing Industrial Revolution’ that had been implemented with an eagerness, faith and drive that put the West to shame.[29] The Fabian economist Barbara Wootton stated that the progress made so far had given the Soviet regime the opportunity of establishing ‘an efficient economic system in the setting of a just and humane social order’.30 Many other leftwingers who rejected Stalinism nonetheless considered that the development of the Soviet economy in the 1930s demonstrated the superiority of economic planning, and that despite its generally negative features, the Soviet bureaucracy was playing a positive role in this field.[31]

One can easily understand why a broad range of left-wingers would endorse the principle of planning, and, despite their misgivings about the Soviet political regime, recognise the wider significance of its plan. A sign of the times was that a similar viewpoint was expressed by the liberals Bernard Pares and Vernon Bartlett,[32] and Britain’s leading business magazine, The Economist, at first thought that the plan was ‘of incalculable value to economists and administrators all over the world’,[33] although its opinion, as we shall see, was by no means always so unequivocal.

Supporters of free enterprise were sometimes rather reserved when debating the relevance of the plan. The awkward words of the Spectator betrayed its disquiet about the contrast between the booming Soviet Union and the slump-ridden system at home:

But the conviction has grown that communism in Russia has come to stay, and along with that conviction a sporting, or~hould we say?-philosophic desire to see the best that the Russians can make out of the system they have adopted-a desire to keep the ring and give her the opportunity to tryout her big experiment and show the world how it works. We have not made so big a success of our own affairs that we can afford to ignore what is being done in a different way elsewhere; and a country which has dared to take the dangerous chance may surely have stumbled upon some discoveries which might be applicable even to our own so different system.[34]

On the other hand, critics of Soviet planning could be found, including amongst those who were in principle in favour of economic planning. Notwithstanding its endorsement of the idea of economic planning, and in contrast to its earlier tentative approval, The Economist began to downplay somewhat the significance of the Soviet experiment. After three years of the first Five-Year Plan, it expressed its disappointment that Soviet planning differed ‘only in scale from the machinery used by any large company with a centralised organisation in planning its yearly output’, and that the government had no way of dealing with discrepancies between plan targets and actual performance.[35] Two years on, it claimed that economic planning was now commonplace in the world at large, and emphasised that a state-controlled economy substituted its own problems for those peculiar to free enterprise. An authoritarian state able to control labour and resources could ‘achieve remarkable results in certain fields of industrial construction and development’, but could not provide consistent increases in living standards, nor ‘banish the elements of crisis and maladjustment from the national economic life’.[36]

Some commentators felt that the Soviet economic experience was of no relevance to the modern capitalist world. Perhaps surprisingly, considering his pioneering of economic regulation, Keynes brusquely wrote off Moscow’s economic policies as ‘an insult to our intelligence’.[37] Similarly, H.G. Wells’ enthusiastic advocating of collectivism did not cause him to praise the Soviet leaders. He had no time for their ‘fundamental blunderings’, contemptuously declaring: ‘They still believe … that they can teach our Western world everything that is necessary for the salvation of mankind.'[38] William Beveridge felt that the developed Western countries had little to learn from the Five-Year Plans, but added, almost certainly with places such as India in mind, that it would be worth sending administrators and sociologists to the Soviet Union to study the process of modernisation ‘to enquire how soon and by what methods’ it was possible ‘to change the aptitudes and ways of thought and living of a population, to turn peasants by masses into craftsmen or machine men’.[39]

Other criticisms of the Five-Year Plans were made. Mark Patrick, a Conservative MP who had served in the diplomatic service in Moscow, stated that the First FiveYear Plan paid ‘no regard whatever to any necessity for a carefully considered limitation, distribution and balance of the productive forces’, and merely constituted a scheme to industrialise at any cost an agrarian country.[40] Lancelot Lawton, a staunch conservative critic of socialism, did not deny that there had been a great expansion since 1929, but was adamant that the Russian economy would have grown under any economic system. He added that planning merely led to chaos, as there were too many unknown or variable factors in the production process for planners to be able to ascertain production costs, and without that knowledge the planning process would lose all touch with reality. His conclusion was clear: ‘In Russia, in fact, everything foretold by the opponents of socialism has come to pass’.[41] The liberal J.A Spender considered that in the absence of an economic mechanism which could ascertain consumer requirements, minor errors in the planning departments could lead directly to catastrophic blunders being made in production and distribution processes.[42]

Outright detractors, however, were relatively few. More common amongst critics was a feeling that Soviet planning was nothing particularly noteworthy. Margaret Miller, one of the first experts on the Soviet economy, considered that Soviet planning should be recognised not so much as a new economic system than as ‘a mobilising and coordinating force’, a means to direct ‘national energies’ towards the fulfilment of an ambitious construction programme,[43] and added that the plan was ‘a brief step in a lengthy historical process’ of development in Russia that had been continuing since the turn of the century, albeit under differing economic and political conditions.[44] Leonard Hubbard, another British authority on the Soviet economy, weighed up the advantages and disadvantages of an etatised economic system. He stated that without the need to heed public opinion and with centralised control and the ability to use coercion, the Soviet regime could make long-term and large-scale investments that would be impossible under a democratic market system. On the other hand, he considered that the incompetence of workers and management had ensured that the great increase in the use of machinery had ‘resulted in a very meagre expansion of production in comparison with the amount of capital invested’. Planning was immune from some of the defects of capitalism, but it had its own problems, particularly in respect of shortfalls in one sector leading directly to dislocations in others. Hubbard was not alone in insisting that there were many problems that had to be solved before the Soviet system could justifiably claim supremacy over capitalism.[45]

A few commentators denied that the Soviet economy was planned. The economist Michael Polanyi considered that Soviet planning was little more than ‘a series of loosely connected tasks’ centred on increasing production, rather than a systematic and coordinated plan. Moreover, the prioritisation of sheer output, exemplified by the emphasis upon storming forward and the delight when targets were exceeded, ensured that coordination amongst the different branches of production was severely hindered.[46] Hubbard declared that the Soviet economy was run on ‘a compromise between theoretical planning and expediency’, the latter being ‘old and proved capitalist principles’ to which the regime had been forced to resort, but as deviations between plan and practice were never admitted by Soviet officials, they could only be ascertained through ‘occasional hints and chance peeps behind the scene’.[47]

The idea of state intervention into the economy and economic planning did not start in Britain as a result of watching Stalin in 1929. The crash of 1929 and the ensuing slump had a great effect upon political and economic thinking in Britain. On the left, socialists had long felt that capitalism was a crisis-ridden system, ahd the slump merely confirmed their expectations. Whatever qualms many of them had about the methods of the Soviet regime, the vast majority of soc:ialisrs considered that it had started to implement economic planning and social welfare measures, and was thereby laying the foundations of a socialist society. It appeared as though the Soviet Union had taken definite steps towards socialism precisely at the point when capitalism had demonstrated its bankruptcy. Amongst non-socialists. and particularly within Britain’s ruling circles, the crisis forced politicians and economists to recognise that the market in and of itself was incapable of solving the problems facing their system, and that the state was obliged to step in and alter the spontaneous running of the market mechanism. The experience of the First World \\-ar had demonstrated the necessity for governments to intervene in economic and social aifairs. and the idea that such intervention could benefit capitalism was gaining ground prior to the crash. Had the Bolsheviks failed in 1917, or had the Soviet republic foundered in the Civil War, there can be little doubt that pro-interventionist sentimenrs would have emerged in the capitalist world, and would have become intensified and popularised in any period of economic crisis. Conversely, had capitalism been booming in 1929, the First Five-Year Plan would not have gone unnoticed, but its impact in the West would have been considerably reduced. Nonetheless, despite there being no causal connection between the two events, the launch of the Five-Year Plans coincided with the great crash, and the vivid contrast between capitalist crisis and Smiet growth could not have failed to have had an impact in the West Howe”\-er. the influence of the plans in bourgeois circles should not be overestimated. ~luch of the debate in Britain around planning, irrespective of the political views of those inyolved, was concerned primarily with indigenous events and, to a lesser extent, \\ith those of the capitalist world as a whole. References to the Soviet Union were not particularly common even in left-wing books and articles on planning, and eYen then were often little more than passing remarks.

The Five-Year Plans served as a backdrop to the already existing discussion in Britain around the issues that were raised by the general problems facing the economy and which were brought to a head by the crash of 1929. The Soviet plans acted as a catalyst, spurring on this debate, a series of innovations which could be profitably studied, and a lurking reminder that the market was not an infallible guarantee of prosperity, rather than a course of action to be imitated. Pro-planning consen’atives and liberals defined their interventionist plans in opposition to a fully collectivised economy, and posited them within a defence of parliamentary democracy against the ‘totalitarian’ regimes of Italy, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Their attitude was paralleled by that of the right-wing social democrats, who, despite their calls for the replacement of capitalism with socialism and their feeling that the Soviet Union was some sort of socialist society or contained certain socialist features, did not really intend to go beyond a capitalist economy with sufficient state intervention in the economic and social fields to overcome poverty and overt inequality. The critical but not unfriendly welcome to the Five-Year Plans on the part of a wide range of British commentators was not based upon any identification with official communism, but was because the Soviet regime was implementing economic and social schemes from which they thought Western governments could draw important lessons, just as various writers-in desperation, one suspects-subsequently implored the wartime British government to ‘pay tribute to the Nazis’ amazing organising abilities in the economic and industrial organisation of Germany’, as one of them put it.[48]

However, whilst praise for the Five-Year Plans was an important reason for the relatively benign attitude that existed towards the Soviet Union outwith the usual pro-Soviet circles during this period, more important in this respect was the manner in which Moscow was now often regarded as a stabilising factor in world affairs, and as a potential ally of Britain in an increasingly threatening international situation. This stance could only last so long as Moscow acted in what appeared to be a positive manner on the international scene, and so long as planning and welfare measures remained rudimentary in capitalist countries. After 1945, with the acceptance of the welfare state and state intervention in mainstream British politics and the domination of the East-West schism in international relations, a strong anti-communist consensus became the driving force on the British political scene, and the Soviet brand of planning tended to be seen as another part of the ‘totalitarian’ society.

Planning, Democracy and the Left

The fear of a new Leviathan goes back a long way, and was given a new lease of life by .the rise of the idea of economic planning. Long before the October Revolution, let alone the rise of Stalinism, not only had right-wingers been warning that socialism ‘would drill and brigade us into a kind of barrack-yard existence’, ‘an intolerable official despotism’, with the population becoming ‘mere automata moved by the allabsorbing and all-directing power of the state’,[49] but similar fears had also been expressed within the socialist movement itself. In late Victorian Britain, the Fabians’ vision of socialism, most explicitly expressed by their leading theoreticians Sidney and Beatrice Webb, of a combination of a parliamentary democracy and an etatised society under the benevolent rule of an enlightened administrative elite, struck fear in the hearts of many socialists. The Webbs combined an incurable elitism with ultimate technocratism. Their idea of socialism was the precise ordering of society, with everything planned out in advance, and everyone working to that plan. Society was to be a well-oiled machine, run by disinterested experts standing above the political melee. This top-down conception of socialism meant that democracy would be strictly circumscribed, and certainly would not mean the masses running their own affairs, except in respect of the most mundane issues. Leadership would remain with what Beatrice Webb called ‘an elite of unassuming experts’.[50] It is no surprise that many socialists considered that the Webbs’ concept of socialism would merely lead to a bureaucratic nightmare, with the replacement of the capitalist class by a new class of officials.[51]

The Independent Labour Party (ILP) was divided between those who favoured the Fabians’ programme and those who felt that their etatism and circumscribed view of democracy had sinister overtones. This latter outlook was shared by the ostensibly Marxist Social Democratic Federation, but this organisation’s favouring of a centralised state under socialism was seen by some socialists as smacking of authoritarianism. The early years of the 20th century saw the rise of syndicalism and guild socialism, which also viewed etatism and centralisation with great suspicion, and which championed the need for workirlg-class control of the work process.[52] However, although an exhaustive study of this subject fairly concludes that strong democratic ideas were ‘of major importance’ in the British labour movement prior to the Russian Revolution,[53] there remained much ambiguity on this subject within the international socialist movement as a whole, not least on the question of how power would be exercised in a socialist society. [54]

Let us now consider the impact in Britain of the Smiet experience on the relationship between socialism and democracy. One important consequence of the October Revolution in Britain was the formation of the CPGB in 1920. Britain’s communists hailed the October Revolution on the grounds that the Bolsheyiks were leading the way to a genuinely free society. Although the liberatory image of Bolshevism was no illusion, by the time the CPGB was formed, objective and subjective factors-the appalling conditions in Russia and the inability of the Bolsheviks fully to transcend paternalistic forms of socialism-had led to the Soviet leadership restricting soviet democracy, and substituting itself for the working class,ruling in its name. This process continued through the 1920s, and the establishment of a gigantic etatised economic structure under the First Five-Year Plan finally gave the Soviet party-state apparatus the solid social foundation which it previously lacked, and thus allowed it to become a fully fledged ruling elite. It is an irony of history that the CPGB was formed by a large proportion of Britain’s leading revolutionaries, including many from a syndicalist background, on the grounds that the Soviet republic meant precisely that-a society based upon workers’ councils-at a time when soviet democracy was being submerged under the rising party-state apparatus. The anti-bureaucratic forces within the British labour movement that identified with the October Revolution thus only adopted an organisational identification with that revolution after the process of bureaucratisation had taken off, and, like other communist parties, the CPGB could not avoid being contaminated by this process as it consolidated itself as the 1920s drew by. By the end of the decade, when the infatuation with all things Soviet was becoming the vogue, the Soviet bureaucracy was mutating into a self-conscious ruling elite, conscious of the fact that its interests were opposed to those of the masses, and therefore conscious of its need to oppose and to prevent communism at the same time as it promoted an albeit bastardised form of Marxism. It is a sign of the immaturity of the British revolutionary left that for all its tradition of opposition to bureaucratism and the state, the CPGB had within a decade of its foundation become notorious for its servility to the Soviet bureaucratic state, and those who took an anti-Stalinist course remained a marginal political force.

The Soviet experience did not have a particularly edifying impact upon the relationship between socialism and democracy. For some, democracy within the Soviet Union was an act of faith or self-deception, often accompanied by strange rationalisations and sleights of hands that indicated that they recognised that Moscow suffered from a definite democratic deficit. Some who accepted the undemocratic nature of Stalinism felt that it suited the rough Slav (and, by implication, not the sophisticated Westerner), whilst others openly deprecated democratic notions and were, such as George Bernard Shaw and Sidney and Beatrice Webb, overt elitists. Indeed, the Webbs repeatedly condemned the concept of workers’ control as parochialism, and, with barely disguised glee, they noted no less than four times in their huge book how the Soviet government wound up the practice of workers’ control in the factories. [55] The CPGB maintained the illusion of the democratic nature of the Soviet regime for many decades, yet it soon dropped any commitment to workers’ control at home. For Soviet Britain, a manifesto published in 1935, expounded at length on the central role of workers’ councils in the fight for and in the running of a socialist Britain, and explained how they would enable the working class, the majority of the population, to run the nation’s affairs in a far more democratic manner than under liberal democracy.[56] Nonetheless, this manifesto, stirring stuff if one ignores the assertion that this was how the Soviet Union was governed, had rapidly to be put aside once the party started to court Liberals, Tories, vicars and other non-proletarian elements during the Popular Front.[57] Such sentiments were never to return. One looks in vain for any mention of workers’ democracy in the party’s overtly reformist programmatic statement at the end of the Second World War,[58] and even as the party turned to the left in 1947 with the formation of the Cominform, its proposals for an economic plan for Britain scrupulously avoided any reference to the idea of workers’ contro1.[59]

People on the left of the Labour Party often steered gingerly around the question of workers’ democracy under socialism. In his lengthy fictitious account of the first term of a socialist government in Britain, G.R. Mitchison, a prominent member of the Socialist League, devoted but a few pages to the subject of workers’ control, and mainly defined it as an advisory adjunct to government appointees who actually managed industry.[6o] Having effectively abandoned guild socialism, and accepted the overarching control of the Soviet leadership over its society,[61] G.D.H. Cole was now seemingly oblivious to a grave danger when he discussed the mechanics of transferring the control of industry from the capitalist class to a socialist administration. He called for the ‘rapid devolution of a large measure of actual control over working conditions, including the actual direction of industry, upon the workers actually engaged in industry’, but added that this could not be done ‘for the first few months, or even the first year or two, of socialist administration’, as one could not afford ‘to risk failure and confusion by trying to be too “democratic” at the very start,.[62] And yet to forbid workers’ control, even temporarily, would raise the real possibility that the capitalist class would be supplanted by a bureaucratic state apparatus. Cole’s recommendation would therefore result in the replacement of one barrier to socialism with another. He seemed oblivious to the dangers that etatisation posed, even as a temporary measure, and its far from temporary nature in the Soviet Union should have been clear to him, seeing that by the 1930s the Soviet elite was not going to permit workers to start exercising any control over their work process, or anything else for that matter.

Fears were expressed by various left-wingers that, in the words of the moderate socialist Tosco Fyvel, a planned society, whatever its benefits, could ‘give a small group of men undreamed-of power and control’.[63] George Orwell continued the argument:

It is quite easy to imagine a world society, economically collectivist-that is, with the profit principle eliminated-but with all political, military and educational power in the hands of a small caste of rulers and their bravos … And that, of course, is the slave state, or rather the slave world …. It is against this beastly possibility that we have got to combine.[64]

Moderate socialists presented their concerns about the dangers of unlimited state power by declaring against dictatorships of any persuasion, whilst those on the far left insisted upon the need for socialist democracy.[65] The experience of Stalinism and the huge rise in state intervention in wartime Britain caused the ILP to declare that the choice was not ‘control versus no control’, but ‘control by whom and control for what’-by and for an elite, or by and for the mass of the population. The Soviet model as it currently stood was ‘no solution’ to Europe’s problems; there had to be democratic control of a socialised economy: ‘Selfgovernment in industry must be based on workers’ and technicians’ councils possessing real power at every level of industry, local, regional and national.'[66]

Moderate social democrats opposed Bolshevism in the name of parliamentary democracy, and they often upbraided the Soviet regime for not basing itself upon such tenets, whilst demonstrating an elitist attitude towards their own working class.67 The Bolsheviks failed in their attempt to break from paternalistic socialism, but at least they made the effort to do so; for the right-wing social democrats, the idea of socialism being the self-emancipation of the working class through its own independent political activity was utterly alien. The Labour Party and trade union leaders were always very hostile to anything that smacked even slightly of workers’ control, and recommended no more than minimal degrees of labour movement participation in industrial management, such as union officials sitting on the boards of nationalised concerns,[68] a fact that was noted with satisfaction by conservative observers.[69] Moderate social democratic politicians and thinkers viewed planning in a technocratic manner[70] and were insistent that the business of planning belonged solely to the experts. To cite the Fabian economist Barbara Wootton:

The satisfactory course surely is to recognise once and for all that economic administration is a job for experts, and to hand it over to them. Detailed democratic control of economic affairs is at best a hopeless morass, and at worst (and more commonly) a hypocritical pretence. It has nowhere been effectively exercised in the past, and nobody has suggested any passable scheme by which it might be realised hereafter.[71]

Wootton graciously conceded that the public could through their elected representatives ‘express general opinions about the kind of results which it would like those plans to achieve’, and suggested that the ideal arrangement would be the Soviet planning mechanism combined with a parliamentary political system. But the very idea of workers’ control, or even of any input from the workers beyond advice from those directly involved in a particular work process, was anathema; it was simply impracticable ‘to conduct modern business after the fashion of a public meeting’, and, she was relieved to say, most workers—excluding a ‘temperamentally interfering minority’ ~were not interested in getting involved in managerial functions.[72] This attitude informed the practice of Attlee’s postwar Labour government, best summed up by that former firebrand Sir Stafford Cripps, who asserted in October 1946: ‘I think it would be almost impossible to have worker-controlled industry in Britain, even if it were on the whole desirable.’?[73]

Across almost the entire left, planning was thus seen as a matter for experts, with any participation by the actual producers and consumers being restricted to no more than the suggestion boxes that any sensible factory owner or shopkeeper fixes to the wall in which his workers or customers can deposit ideas for improvements in the production process or changes in products. The ideas put forward by guild socialists and syndicalists that posited workers’ control as a necessary central feature of socialism were either never countenanced or became forgotten in the excitement surrounding the Five-Year Plans. By the 1930s, and certainly by the 1940s, the call for workers’ control of industry as an essential feature of socialist democracy was largely confined to the marginalised far left.[74]

The most profound effect of the Soviet experience upon the left in Britain during the period under discussion was the marginalisation of the idea of socialism as a democratic transformational process, that the replacement of the market by a planned economy must be accompanied by the replacement of parliamentary democracy with a system of councils, an order based on a much higher level of democracy that ensures popular control over society as a whole.

Although the Russian Revolution was carried out under the slogan of Sovietcouncil-power, and for a while the Bolsheviks enjoyed a fruitful relationship with the Russian working class through these institutions, by the 1930s the Soviet Union had mutated into a command economy ruthlessly managed by a monolithic ruling elite.

Moderate social democrats, with their political programme of the reform of capitalism through the working class exercising its social strength via parliamentary procedures, and through a social democratic government gradually introducing social and economic measures benefiting the working class through state administration, never accepted Bolshevism, and, although they felt that lessons could be learned from the Five-Year Plans, the continued reliance of Stalin’s regime upon extremely repressive and authoritarian methods strengthened both their commitment to liberal democracy, with all its limitations, and their belief that the revolutionary road to socialism could only end in tears.

Left-wing social democrats varied in their appraisal of Bolshevism and subsequently Stalinism. Whilst many were drawn into the Stalinist orbit, particularly during the late 1930s, they variously adapted to or recoiled from the regime on all manner of subjects, sometimes cautiously, sometimes precipitately, sometimes naively, often changing their opinions; and in their wavering they tended to lose sight of the centrality of workers’ democracy to socialism, as they tended to see the Soviet Union as a socialist state in spite of its negative feature. The adherents of the official communist movement, of whom not a few had once fought for a democratic transformational form of socialism, and the fellow-travellers were convinced that the Soviet Union represented the new civilisation, where the problems that faced humanity were being solved and any hardships or unpleasant features were merely birth-pangs of a bright new world. Although Stalinist rule was dressed up in democratic or revolutionary clothing which the pro-Soviet lobby took as genuine, the course of history was marked by a continual stripping away of this fayade, so that ‘the new civilisation’ often became ‘the god that failed’. Such was the ferocity of this process of disillusionment that for the majority of those who accepted the Stalinist myth, either in toto or in part, it did not lead to the discovery of a democratic transformational form of socialism, but a retreat into social democratic reformism, that is, the amelioration of the excesses of capitalism, or a rejection of socialism altogether.

Finally, the sections of the left that adhered to the concept of socialism as a democratic transformational process were a marginal force during the period under discussion. Divided amongst divers small currents, each of which was itself divided into argumentative little groups, they disagreed over when and how Bolshevism degenerated into the nationalist elitism of Stalinism, how many (if any) features of socialism still existed in the Soviet Union-which itself raises the important question of how features of a socialist society could exist in any meaningful form in the absence of workers’ democracy-and over what the path to a genuine new civilisation would be.

Technocratic Planning and Working-Class Defeat

A communist society must by its very essence be planned, as the distribution of labour and other resources through the market can only be genuinely replaced by their distribution through a process of economic planning. And that process must necessarily be democratic, with the involvement of the producers and consumers alongside the planners in the determination of the plans. We haye seen through the experience of Stalinism that capitalism can be replaced by a non-democratic form of economic administration, but that should be sufficient to impress upon us that, on the grounds of the general condition of humanity and basic economic efficiency, this has nothing to do with communism.

The marginalisation during the ‘Red Decade’ of the idea of socialism as a democratic transformational process was at first glance paradoxical, but those years constituted simultaneously one of considerable political radicalisation in many countries, and one of tremendous defeats for the working class around the world. The period of the October Revolution-the closing year or so of the First World War and its immediate aftermath-was one of those rare moments when capitalist society was challenged by a wave of working-class militancy. Only in Russia was this challenge successful, and there the first concerted drive towards communism was carried out in very unpropitious conditions. It was obvious that the communist forces there would not be able to survive for long if they were isolated in a bacl”ward, war-ravaged country, although the manner in which they would be defeated was not dear. The rise of Stalinism represented the defeat of the communist forces in the face of insurmountable problems. It also meant that the political agenda in the Soviet Union was now being set by another social force; not a revived capitalist class, but a nascent elite which was emerging from within the Soviet party-state apparatus. The defeat of the revolutionary wave after the First World War was represented in the capitalist countries by the reassertion of the rule of the capitalist class, whether under parliamentary democracy, or under authoritarian or fascist regimes, and by the mutation of the official communist movement into an agency of the new Soviet elite.

One key aspect of this political defeat was that for the large majority of people the idea of socialism-for good or evil-became associated with the management of society by a ruling bureaucracy through the state. As it emerged during the period of the initial Soviet Five-Year Plans, the broadly recognised concept of economic planning was not to be a matter of producers, consumers and planners deciding by means of democratic procedures what was to be produced and how production and distribution were to be implemented, but one of governments, experts and managers making all the decisions on behalf of the population. And so whether planning was intended as a means by which capitalism could be maintained and reformed or by which a new form of non-market society could be managed, it is clear that the concept of planning that was discussed during the period under review was a mechanism by which the working class would be firmly excluded from obtaining power, either through the continuation of the rule of the capitalist class, or through the emergence of a new ruling elite. The rise during the 1930s of the idea of an essentially technocratic form of economic planning was one manifestation of the decline of the concept of socialism as a democratic transformative process, and the political forces that benefited from this concept of planning were those who had a vital interest in the continued subordination of the working class.


1) E. Eldon Barry, Nationalisation in British Politics: The Historical Background (London: Jonathan Cape, 1965), p.314; Donald Sassoon, One Hundred Years of Socialism: The West European Left in the Twentieth Century (London: I.B. Tauris, 1996), p.64; Jonathan Stevenson, British society 1914-15 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984), p.326; A.J.P. Taylor, English history 1914-1945 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977), p.431; Richard Toye, The Labour Party and the Planned Economy (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2003), pp. 20ff

2) Michael Polanyi, The Contempt of Freedom: The Russian Experiment and After (London: Watts, 1940), p.29. Also see John Brown, I Saw For Myself (London: Selwyn and Blount, n.d), p.268; Lord Strabolgi (formerly the Labour MP J.M. Kenworthy), ‘The Political Scene’, Nineteenth Century and After, October 1935, p.469

3) E.H. Carr, The Soviet Impact on the Western World (London: Macmillan, 1947), p.20

4) E.H. Carr, ‘Politics and Economics in Russia’, Spectator, 1 September 1939, p.334

5) E.H. Carr, The New Society (London: Macmillan, 1951), pp. 26-35

6) Elie Halevy, ‘Socialism and the Problem of Democratic Parliamentarianism’, International Affairs, 13:4 (July 1934), p.491

7) Trevor Smith, The Politics of the Corporate Economy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975), p.6

8) Jose Harris, ‘Political Ideas and the Debate on State Welfare, 1940-45’, in H.L. Smith (ed.), War and Social Change: British Society in the Second World War (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1986), p.236

9) These included the Central Electricity Board and the British Broadcasting Corporation in 1926, and the London Passenger Transport Board in 1933

10) Arthur Marwick, The Explosion of British Society 1914-62 (London: Pan, 1963), p.75

11) Advocates of planning later noted with pleasure its all-class appeal. See Lord Eton, ‘The Decay of Opposition’, Fortnightly, January 1938, p.3; W. Horsfall-Carter, ‘Reconnaissance on the Home Front’, Fortnightly, July 1938, p.20

12) Sassoon states that the Liberal Party was quicker than the Labour Party to adopt Kenyesian ideas. Sassoon, op. cit., p.61

13) G.R. Stirling Taylor, ‘The New National Planning’, Fortnightly Review, August 1933, p.132

14) See L.F. Easterbrook, ‘Pigs and Planning’, Nineteenth Century and After, December 1932, p.711; Harold Macmillan, Reconstruction: A Plea for a National Policy (London: Macmillan, 1934)

15) John Stevenson, British Society 1914-45 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984), p.326

16) Hence Sir Andrew McFadyean could state: ‘The system under which we have lived seems to be breaking down; if private initiative has led us into a morass, perhaps public effort can dig us out’. A. McFadyean, ‘The State and Economic Life’, International Affairs, 11:1 (January 1932), pp. 2-6

17) ‘Comment’, New Statesman, 13 June 1931, p.566

18) ‘Democracy and Liberty’, Spectator, 5 October 1934, p.472

19) ‘Russia’s Planned Economy’, The Economist, 15 September 1934, pp. 489-80; Macmillan, op. cit., pp. 126ff.

Hence the largely favourable response amongst British commentators, economists and politicians to the New Deal in the USA, see Neal Wood, Communism and British Intellectuals (London: Gollancz, 1959), pp. 72-73

20) For a detailed account, see Alec Nove, An Economic History of the USSR 1917-1991 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1992)

21) Ranjani Palme Dutt, ‘Notes of the Month’, Labour Monthly, December 1929, pp. 709-710

22) Andrew Rothstein, ‘Preparing War on Soviet Russia’, Labour Monthly, September 1929, p.533

23) Maurice Dobb, Russia Today and Tomorrow (London: Labour Research Department, 1930), pp. 19-20, 25, 30, 33

24) N. and J. Mackenzie (eds), The Diary of Beatrice Webb, Volume 3 (London: Viagro/LSE, 1984), p.361

25) Ibid, p.219

26) Ibid, p.239

27) Sidney and Beatrice Webb, Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation (London: Gollancz, 1937_, pp. 169-73, 630ff, 703, 719, 796

28) Herbert Morrison, ‘Preface’, in W.P. and Z.K. Coates, The Second Five-Year Plan of Development of the USSR (London: Methuen, 1934), p. v.

29) Hugh Dalton, ‘Financial Institutions and Transition’, in Where Socialism Stands Today? (London: Rich and Cowan, 1933), p.61

30) Barbara Wootton, Plan or No Plan (London: Gollancz, 1934), p. 256

31) ‘Comment’, New Statesman, 13 June 1931, p.566; Arthur Woodburn, ‘Russia and British Backwardness’, Plebs, September 1932, p.212; G.D.H. Cole, ‘Economic Prospects: 1938 and After’ Fact, February 1938, p.85; Independent Labour Party, Social Police for 1938 (London: ILP, 1938), p.13

32) Bernard Pares, ‘Russia: Old and the New’, in The New Russia (London: Faber and Faber, 1931), p.44; Vernon Bartlett, ‘Turning Ideas into Facts’, Listener, 1 June 1932, p.782. At this point strongly anti-communist in his outlook, Pares subsequently became an apologist for the Soviet regime following his visit to the Soviet Union in 1935.

33) ‘Bolshevism Examined’, The Economist, 27 April 1929, p.928

34) ‘Britain and Russia-A New Start’, Spectator, 23 February 1934, p.261

35) ‘Russian Impressions’, The Economist, 15 October 1932, p.676

36) ‘Russia’s Planned Economy’, The Economist, 8 and 15 September 1934, pp. 434-35, 478-80

37) John Maynard Keynes, contribution to Stalin-Well Talk: The Verbatim Record and a Discussion (London: New Statesman, 1934), p. 35. Also see G. Ellis, ‘The Planning of Industry’, The Nineteenth Century and After, January 1935, p.57; C. Headlam, ‘Planned National Economy’, Quarterly Review, April 1939, p.283

38) H.G. Wells, After Democracy: Address and Papers on the Present World Situation (London: Watts, 1932), p.179

39) William Beveridge, ‘Soviet Communism’, Political Quarterly, 7:3 (July 1936), p.348

40) Mark Patrick, Hammer and Sickle (London: Elkin, Mathews and Carrot, 1933), p.99

41) Lancelot Lawton, ‘Russian Economic Realities’, Fortnightly Review, August 1934, pp. 171-173. A leading British military analyst stated that the power of Russia did not depend upon its political system, but upon ‘the possesion of vast undeveloped rescources, which would make any country formidable under and system’. Thomas Montgomery Cunninghame, ‘Disarmament’, The Nineteenth Century and After, january 1932, p.55

42) J.A. Spender, These Times (London: Cassell, 1943), p.16

43) Margaret Miller, ‘Planning System in Soviet Russia’, Slavonic and East European Review, 9:26 (december 1930), p.456

44) Margaret Miller, ‘The Five-Year Plan’, in The New Russia, op. cit., pp. 64-65. Also see Laurance Lyon, ‘The Riddle of Russia’, The Nineteenth Century and After, December 1930, p.737

45) Leonard Hubbard, Soviet Money and Finance (London: Macmillan, 1936), p.262; Leonard Hubbard, Soviet Trade and Distribution (London: Macmillan, 1938), pp. 313, 318, 326, 328, 343; Lord Strabogli, ‘The Political Scene’, Nineteenth Century and After, October 1935, p. 469. Hubbard felt that the Soviet claim to have abolished unemployment could only be verified once the period of construction had ended, and if overproduction could be avoided. Hubbard, Soviet Money and Finance, op. cit., pp. 277-278

46) Michael Polanyi, USSR Economics: Fundamental Data, System and Spirit (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1936), p.15

47) Hubbard, Soviet Trade and Distribution, op. cit., p. v; Soviet Money and Finanace, op. cit., p. vii

48) F.L. Kerran, ‘The Nazi Plan-What Is Ours?, Plebs, June 1940, p.143. Also see C.W. Guillebaud, The Social Policy of Nazi Germany (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1941), passim; R.A Scott-James, ‘The Planning of War’, Spectator, 21 June 1940, pp. 831-832; Barbara Wootton, ‘Who Shall Pay for the War?’, Political Quarterly, 11:2 (April 1940), p. 154

49) ‘Nemo’, Labour and Luxury: A Reply to ‘Merrie England’ (London: Walter Scott, 1895), p.107. Also see Herbert Spencer, ‘The Coming Slavery’, Contemporary Review, April 1884, pp. 480-481

50) M. Cole and B. Drake (eds), Our Partnership by Beatrice Webb (London: Macmillan, 1948), p.97

51) See Logie Barrow and Ian Bullock, Democratic Ideas and the British Labour Movement, 1880-1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996)

52) A considerable chunk of a book published in 1917 by the syndicalist-inspired Socialist Labour Party was a heartfelt warning against the extension of state power over society in the name of ‘state socialism’. William Paul, The State: Its Origin and Function (Glasgow: Socialist Labour Press, n.d.), pp. 169ff

53) Barrow and Bullock, op. cit., p.303

54) See Sassoon, op. cit., p.20

55) Webb, op. cit., 166-167, 301-303, 607-608, 701-703

56) Communist Party of Great Britain, For Soviet Britain (London: CPGB, 1935), pp. 23ff

57) Harry Pollit, ‘Economic Security, Peace and Democracy’, in Communist Party of Great Britain, For Peace and Plenty (London: CPGB, 1938), pp. 55-57

58) Harry Pollitt, How to Win the Peace (London: CPGB, 1945)

59) Communist Party of Great Britain, Britain’s Plan for Prosperity (London: CPGB, 1947). There was a distinctively authoritarian feel to Stalinist calls for planning. Erno Goldfinger, the architect close to the Communist Party, stated that the technical means and knowledge existed to satisfy human needs: ‘The will to plan must be aroused. There is no obstacle, but ignorance and wickedness. Planning means freedom’. Erno Goldfinger, ‘Living in Cities’, Horizon, June 1941, endpaper. This sounds all very well, but it begs the questions: who will be elaborating the plans, and unpon whose behalf will the plans be drawn up? The manner in which various concrete monstrosities, some of which were designed by Goldfinger himself, in which Britain’s workers were supposed to live and work, were foisted upon us gives a clear indication of the authoritarian essence of certain types of planning.

60) G.R. Mitchinson, The First Workers’ Government (London: Gollancz, 1934), pp. 145-147

61) G.D.H. Cole, The Intelligent Man’s Guide Through World Chaos (London: Gollancz, 1932), p.601

62) G.D.H. Cole, ‘Socialist Control of Industry’, in Problems of a Socialist Government (London: Gollancz, 1933), pp. 180-182

63) T.R. Fyvel, The Malady and the Vision: An Analysis of Political Faith (London: Secker and Warburg, 1940), p.108. See also Patrick Gordon Walker, ‘Is Stalinism Socialism?’ Plebs, November 1940, p.237

64) George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier (London: Gollancz, 1937), pp. 247-248

65) Orwell was never able to solve the dilemma of democracy and collectivism, hence the pessimism of much of his writings. See Paul Flewers, “I Know How, But I don’t Know Why”: George Orwell’s Conception of Totalitarianism’, in Paul Flewers (ed.), George Orwell: Enigmatic Socialist (London: Socialist Platform, 2005)

66) Independent Labour Party, Socialist Plan for Peace and Britain (London: ILP, n.d.), pp. 5, 12

67) This was illustrated by Ethel Snowden, a right-winger in the Labour Party who visited the Soviet republic in 1920. About the only occasion she sympathised with the Soviet authorities was when she endorsed Yakov Sverdlov’s ‘impatience’ with ‘soviet’-in the sense of local-‘interference in industry’. Mrs Philip [Ethel] Snowden, Through Bolshevist Russia (London: Cassell, 1920), p.125

68) Barry, op. cit., pp. 317ff. See also R.A. Dahl. ‘Worker’s Control of Industry and the British Labor [sic] Party’, American Political Science Review, 41:5 (October 1947), pp. 875-900

69) Macmillan, op. cit., p.177. And by Fabians too, see R.C.K. Ensor, ‘A Crippsian Utopia’, Spectator, 28 September 1934, p. 446

70) Hugh Dalton, Practical Socialism for Britain (London: Routledge, 1935)

71) Wootton, Plan or No Plan, op. cit., p.311. Wootton’s outlook was subsequently echoed by her Fabian colleague W. Arthur Lewis; see his The Principles of Economic Planning (London: Dobson, 1949)

72) Ibid, pp. 311, 345-346. Of course , the idea that workers’ control means running ‘modern business after the fashion of a public meeting’ is a crude parody.

73) Stafford Cripps, ‘Dockets for Textiles’, The Times, 28 October 1946, p.2. A decade earlier, Clement Attlee discounted the concerns of administrators and industrialists about workers intervening in the organising of the work process: ‘The workers understand very well the function of management, and are not the least likely to interfere unduly’. Clement Attlee, The Labour Party in Perspective (London” Gollancz, 1937), p.191

74) Such an absence in mainstream circles did not go unnoticed. One aggrieved railwayman asked: ‘What has become of that plank of socialist propaganda-workers’ control of industry?’ H.F. Turner, ‘These Are Your Pages’, Tribune, 10 January 1941, p.22. For the decline in the call for workers’ control, see Geoffrey Ostergaard, The Tradition of Workers’ Control (London: Freedom Press, 1997). It should be noted that the tentative but incisive outlines made by Lenin in 1917, which proved impossible to implement in the conditions facing his regime-the combination of workers’ control on a local level with centralised planning under a socialist democracy-were available at the time. English translations of Lenin’s State and Revolution had already been published in 1919 and 1925. This work, plus his articles that raised the question of workers’ control, including ‘The Threatening Catastrophe and How to Fight It’ and Will the Bolsheviks Retain State Power?’, were available in the series of Lenin’s Collected Works, Volume 21, parts 1 and 2 (London: Martin Lawrence, n.d), that were published by the CPGB’s publishing house sometime in the early 1930s.

Joe Jacobs – Sorting out the postal strike

September 4, 2010 1 comment

J. Jacobs, Sorting Out The Postal Strike (London: Solidarity, 1971)

This pamphlet* was written by a worker recently dismissed from the Post Office as a result of an injury on the job. He had worked in the Post Office for some time and remained in close contact with the strikers throughout the dispute.

Dog shows his support on the 44th day of the strike.


After months of negotiating, the Union of Post Office Workers and the Post Office Board had reached deadlock. The union claimed 15%. The Board would only offer 8%. The government had repeatedly proclaimed that it would oppose all ‘unreasonable claims’, especially in the ‘public’ sector. They had advised employers in the ‘private’ sector to do likewise. The workers in the Electricity Industry had just been subjected to a vicious campaign which had forced them to call off their work-to-rule. They had had to accept a Court of Enquiry. In the light of all the facts the U.P.W. claim was reasonable. But it was still too much for the P.O. Board, backed by the government.

When the talks broke down, Tom Jackson announced he would call for strike action at the earliest possible date. Strange as it may seem, he said this even before he had reported back to his full E.C. The E.C. decided to instruct members to withdraw their labour as from January 20th. At the same time, postal workers gathered through the press, TV and radio that there would be no strike pay.


The rank and file had not been consulted over timing or tactics. They were not even asked to vote on the proposal to strike. Or on anything else until the very end. They just awaited instructions. Although there were considerable differences of opinion on the best methods to be used in the struggle against the P.O. and the government, the workers responded almost unanimously to the union’s call. Only a small number, mainly telephone operators, failed to strike. The solidarity was magnificent. And this despite the fact that the postal workers belong to a union well known for its long record of cooperation with the employers at the expense of the men.

Postal workers are however entitled to ask why their union had no funds after so many years without a major strike. why did the E.C. not make some effort to get money before calling the strike? Why was no effort made to get real cooperation from members of other unions, especially the Post Office Engineers? This should have been a major objective if the strike was to be effective. This was an ‘official’ strike. If the T.U.C. had wanted, it could from the very start have considered levying the whole of its affiliated membership. A two bob a week levy would have produced 18 million shillings (or £900,000) a week. That would have been something the strikers would have appreciated. It would also have been a blow to the government’s hopes of starving the Post Office workers into submission. The T.U.C. said they were behind the U.P.W. But it appears that they were a long way ‘behind’.

From the beginning all sorts of ‘bright sparks’ were trying to cash in by offering alternative postal services, at very high rates. Large firms, banks, etc, made their own plans for handling and moving mail. P.O. engineers continued to service the telephones, including those exchanges where scabs were working. Workers in transport, docks, airports, railways, roads, etc, began to handle goods normally handled by postal workers. No appeals had been made to them for anything more than sympathy or a few bob conscience money.


Tom Jackson and other trade union leaders were saying that this was not a political strike, or a strike against the government, but a simple industrial dispute. After talks between Mr Carr and a union delegation, Mr Jackson said he though Mr Carr was being ‘very fair and only trying to understand both sides’. How naive can one be? Surely Mr Jackson knew that the government was four square behind the Post Office. It took seven hard weeks to get Mr Jackson to admit that perhaps the government were, after all, ‘not neutral’. The postal workers’ solidarity won the admiration of other workers and gave the Post Office and the Government something to think about. Money and moral support began to arrive to relieve hardship among the strikers. Some unions were making donations, and offering interest-free loans. Collections on the job were being taken. The public generally were not unsympathetic to the postal workers’ cause. They felt that their claim was a modest one in view of the low basic wage-rates in the industry.

The U.P.W. organised weekly rallies in London’s Hyde Park. The marches through the West End were impressive. Over 25,000 took part in the first one. The figure was nearer 50,000 by the fifth week, when the Post Office Engineers joined the postal workers in a one day token stoppage. With such enthusiastic support we might ask why the leadership of the union did not consider marching on some of the Telephone Exchanges where scabs were still working. This would have been more effective than listening to speeches in Hyde Park. There were other places too where mail and parcels were being handled which should have had the attention of the strikers.


The strike continued without must increase in the number of scabs. Attempts were made by the mass media to discourage the strikers by reporting various examples of scabbing and various ways which firms were using to undermine the strike. Everyone talked. There were talks between the union and Mr Carr. talks between Mr Carr and the P.O. Board. Questions in Parliament. But no solution. It was becoming clear that the tactics of the Post Office and Government were to starve the strikers into submission. But the strikers themselves showed no sign of weakening. At the end of the sixth week they strike was in reasonably good health. There was hardship, but they were ready to continue the fight for their full 15% claim.

At this stage we decided to say a few words and produced the following leaflet, which was well received.


There is too much double-talk about the Post Office strike.

Workers everywhere admire the stand taken by the postmen and their great demonstrations of solidarity.

The Government, employers and other thought the Post Office workers would be easy meat. They are finding them very hard to chew.

Moral and financial support is fine and should be increased. But sympathy and admiration are not enough! More practical support is called for on all sides. What kind of support?

The Post Office Engineers should not be helping to keep the telephone service going. They are stabbing their fellow-workers in the back. Moreover they are cutting their own throats in the process.

Railwaymen, dockers, road transport workers, airport workers and other are all in some way or other handling mail and parcels. In doing this they are weakening the postmen’s fight. This Scabbing should stop!


This is the kind of support that they are entitled to expect from fellow-workers.

If other unions won’t act in solidarity, workers in these unions must act for themselves.

If you are a Post Office striker, give this leaflet to a Post Office engineer, transport worker, docker or railwayman working in a parcels office.

You may be told this is the work of ‘trouble-makers’. There will be a load more trouble for ALL workers if this postmen’s strike is defeated!


At the beginning of the seventh week, the whole Executive Council call on Mr Carr with a proposal which they claimed might be a basis for ending the strike. What proposal? We don’t know. The E.C. did not consult rank and file postal workers about their ‘proposal’. Mr Jackson reported that his reason for approaching Mr Carr was that the strike could not continue because of shortage funds. The union had borrowed about £750,000.

After talking at the Ministry for some fourteen hours the E.C. of the U.P.W. decided to recommend that the strike be called off without any offer from the Post Office Board. They promised to accept, in advance the decisions of a three-man ‘Committee of Enquiry’. The membership would be asked to ballot by branches, for or against the E.C.’s recommendation.

This was hot news when the rally met in Hyde Park for the last time on Thursday, March 4. Mr Jackson and his E.C. met an angry crowd of strikers. They knew that there was a great deal of suffering among them. At this stage there were 30-40,000 hardship cases and insufficient help was coming in. Mr Jackson also knew that the postal workers would have continued the struggle, despite the sacrifices demanded, if the strike hadn’t been called off by the Executive. The E.C.’s proposals were accepted, but not without hard feelings and protests. The Merseyside men carried on for one day more, in protest, as they put it, at the ‘indecent haste’ with which the Executive Council had called off the strike.

Why was the E.C. so concerned about the ‘democratic rights’ of the members at the end of the strike, but not at the beginning? Or while it lasted? They needed to say that the decision to give up was the will of the membership. After making all the decisions without consultation, after imposing 6 hard weeks of suffering in a fight which the postal workers had to endure almost alone, the strikers were to be ‘allowed’ to vote to return to work. The Executive’ s concern for the democratic rights of it’s members is a sham. They knew when to deprive the men of these rights and they know when to use these rights to whitewash their own base actions.

The postal workers were manipulated into this position against their wishes. Part of the trouble was that they had illusions about the need for leaders who could do things for them. Many people, including so-called ‘militants’ are always appealing to workers to follow their leaders – or to elect ‘better’ leaders. Some of these militants held positions in unions and worked in places which handled black mail during the dispute. Why was there no sympathy action in support of the postal workers by ‘militants’, particularly among the Post Office Engineers? What is the good of holding positions on union executives if you can’t help in a concrete way then workers are in battle?

March 4th - Angry postal workers jeer Tom Jackson as he recommends a return to work


Once again the workers felt let down. The time has come to consider why the workers feel they have been ‘sold out’ and what they can do in the future to avoid this fate. Workers feel ‘let down’ or ‘sold out’ because not enough of them have yet come to realise that the interests of the union officials are different from the interests of the rank-and-file workers they claim to represent. The interests of the officials are better conditions for themselves, infrequent elections, a quiet life, less expenditure on things like strike benefit, and more income from increased membership and subscriptions. We in Solidarity try to avoid using terms like ‘betrayal’ or ‘sell out’ when describing the repeatedly reactionary behaviour of the union hierarchies, for we deny that they are ever on the side of the workers, since they are little more than middlemen on the labour market, and depend for their continued power, perks and privileges on proving themselves useful to the employers.

In this respect the leadership of the U.P.W. is not much worse – or better – than the leadership of any other union. It is certainly not alone in acting as it did. All Party and Trade Union leaders do this. Workers will have to learn how to exercise real democracy themselves. This means taking matters into their own hands and not relying on leaders who ‘con’ them into believing that they can act on their behalf.


If postmen think Mr Jackson did not know what he was doing, let them read what he was reported to have said by the ‘Observer‘ the day the ballot was being held. Jackson ‘never wanted an all-out strike and advised against it from the beginning, but he had to recognise the enormously strong feeling among his members, that if there was to be industrial action only a full scale battle would satisfy them’. How did Mr Jackson know this? He never consulted the rank and file. ‘Mr Jackson would have preferred the tactic of lightning strikes in selected parts of the Post Office, bringing out sorters one day, the collectors another, the delivery men another. This would have caused complete chaos – as the Post Office itself admits – the trick being that people would still continue to use the services because the staff would still be working – after a fashion. This will be his tactic next time’.

This quote is very revealing! According to the same report, Mr Jackson also claimed that ‘he knew a Post Office strike couldn’t be won if it lasted more than three weeks’.

Mr Jackson seems to have had a lot of wisdom which he kept to himself. As we have said there was no consultation at all with the full membership. In fact I know from personal experience that postmen at Mount Pleasant only got their information from the Press, radio and T.V. right up to one day before the strike. Many did not agree with going on strike but had other ideas for dealing with the refusal to meet their claim. If Mr Jackson felt that a strike could not win if it lasted more than three weeks, why did he not say it at the time? If he knew that other tactics would be more effective, why did he not recommend these tactics? It is still not too late! Is he prepared to call on the workers now to operate a plan of the kind referred to in the ‘Observer‘ report?

If Mr Jackson knew how effective such tactics could be – and if the Post Office knew it too – why did he recommend a less effective method of struggle, namely a full strike? Let Mr Jackson answer by correcting his ‘mistake’. I’m sure the postal workers would be very interested to hear, even now, how their full claim could be won. Remember that old conservative slogan – ‘a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay’. Well, the postal workers are not getting a fair day’s pay. So they are under no obligation to do a fair day’s work.

Scabbing biker gangs


We distributed a second leaflet in Central London as the strikers were gathering to vote in the ballot. In this we took up some of the issues that had been left hanging in mid air.


The solidarity of Post Office workers these last few weeks has been magnificent. The government, the Post Office and others thought these workers would be easy meat. The found them very hard to chew.

The Union Executive Council has now unanimously recommended a return to work. They have agreed to accept the verdict of a three-man Committee of Enquiry.

The workers are being forced back because of hardships. They were isolated and did not receive the support they were entitled to expect from Post Office engineers, dockers, railwaymen, airport and other transport workers. All these handled mail on a large scale.

But the fight is not over!


If postmen return to work, why not

1) set up rank-and-file committees to continue the struggle


The fight can continue at work. Find your own ways and means.
Clearing the backlog is management’s problem.

Don’t stand for victimisation.

Don’t trust trade union or party leaders.

Workers should know by now what happens if things are left to ‘official leaders’.



The postal strike will live in the minds of all who took part. It was a great display of solidarity and courage. It will also live in working class history as one of the longest national strikes without strike pay. We hope it will give rise to some serious re-thinking among militants. This strike could become a starting point for alternative methods of struggle, now open to many workers in industry. It highlights the need for rank-and-file organisation on the shop floor as the alternative to following ‘leaders’ of unions or political parties.

The idea that workers can rely on their own power, used and managed by themselves, can be the most important development in future struggles with the employers and their trade union and other stooges.

The three-man Committee of Enquiry, the Government and the Post Office should beware. If the postal workers do not get a fair deal, they will be obliged to take this matter into their own hands. This goes for all other people (industrial workers, students, teachers, white-collar workers of all kinds) who are struggling for freedom from those who order, manipulate and exploit them.


Many of the postal workers are now very bitter and some short-sighted things are being said or thought. Some post office workers may say they will not help the Post Office Engineers when they are due to fight for their own wage claim. I hope I am wrong. Some postal workers man even say that strikes are of no use, or too costly. This would also be wrong. What workers need to consider are new methods of struggle, which hit the employers without causing too much suffering to the men.

Certainly the employers and the government hope to make strikes more difficult to sustain and to discredit them altogether. This was the objective of the government in its stand against the Post Office workers. In fact the government’s sights are set even higher. They hope, by means of the Industrial Relations Bill, to make militant action a crime when organised by rank-and-file workers. Unofficial action of all kinds will be subject to legal sanctions which do not apply at the moment. It would be illegal for anyone to call for support for those on strike.

Equally misguided would be the conclusion, now being advocated by some who consider themselves radicals or revolutionaries that what is now needed is to ‘bring pressure’ on the T.U.C., or on the leaders of various unions to unite with a view to leading more effective fights. As we have shown this is not in keeping with the interests of these leaders, who are there to help the system work more smoothly. To count on them to fight is to foster illusions. The idea that the leaders will expose themselves in the course of these ‘struggles’ and that this will result in greater awareness on the part of those who are being ‘sold out’ is a myth. What usually happens is demoralisation and a reluctance to take-part in further struggles. Workers must not be manipulated in this way. They must learn the simple truth that they can only rely on themselves.


It was a costly strike for the Post Office Board and for many businesses. Things in the Post Office can never be the same. The ‘goodwill’ of the men will be lost for a long time. But it goes even deeper.

The government and employers are beginning to doubt the reliability of the trade union leaders to do their job of holding workers back. Those in power know the score. Their offensive is against all those who are discovering how to fight authority in all its forms, against all who take matter into their own hands, whether it be for wage increases, control of the job, better housing or opposition to being pushed around by all sorts of bureaucrats. We are all having to deal with orders, at work and in our daily lived, on an ever-increasing scale.

We can only resist this if we begin to organise on the job and where we live. This applies to all sorts of community matters, where people can get together to defend themselves against the encroachments of local and government authorities.

We are kidded into believing we live in a democratic county. Nothing could be further from the truth. We should start exercising out real democratic rights. We should place less faith in voting, once in a while, when our masters allow us to. And we should exercise more control, and more continuously, over out real life situations.

Industrial workers and others are now in a good position to decide on new methods of struggle. Strikes, in which we leave the factories and offices in the hands of the employers while we walk the streets, may not always be the best way for us to fight. Why not use a little imagination? Why not stay in and run these factories and offices for ourselves? It has been done before. It could be done again.

The Post Office strike will not be forgotten. It will not have been in vain if it makes us look again at all the weapons we ordinary people have in our own hands, if only we decide to act for ourselves. People are always being asked to follow some political leader or other, who will get them what they want. The leaders always finish up helping themselves at the People’s expense.

‘God helps those that help themselves’ is an old saying. We would add that you don’t need any Gods to help you if you can help yourselves. And you can! Get together, discuss problems with your workmates. Don’t leave it to others to decide for you.

As I finish writing this, a report is coming over the radio which says that telegraphists at Electra House in Central London are staging a sit-down strike against conditions being imposed since their return to work after the strike. Yet again, the workers will show that they are going to have the last word.

J. J.

Anyone interested in discussing these ideas should contact the author at 29 Troutbeck, Albany Road, London N.1.

Order copies of this pamphlet for your workmates or for sale at your trade union branch. 3 new pence per copy. 30 pence per dozen.
* This pamphlet, published March 18, 1971. Provides a view of the 1971 United Kingdom postal workers strike, which lasted from the 20th of January 1971 to the 4th of March.

Pit Sense – or No Sense?

September 2, 2010 1 comment

From Subversion, No. 15 (Autumn 1995)

Book review of D. Douglass, Pit Sense versus the State: A history of militant miners in the Doncaster area (London: Phoenix Press, 1993)

This thin volume unfortunately does not live up to its title. Most of the book is a recital of union resolutions and a commentary on the activities of Doncaster miners in the N.U.M. during the 1984/85 national strike. For those not familiar with the mining industry or the structure and functioning of the N.U.M. it is also quite difficult to follow, lacking as it does a preliminary chronology of the strike or annotated diagram of the N. U. M.’s organisational structure.

Indeed the purpose behind the writing of this book is difficult to fathom until you reach the last 3 short chapters which are largely a duplication of material previously published in the pamphlet ‘Refracted Perspective’. It then becomes apparent that it is an attempt to provide some documentary evidence in support of Douglass’ defence of trade unionism and the N.U.M. in particular against criticism by revolutionaries. Basically he believes that “unofficial” action is parallel to and supportive of “officiaI” union action, rather than the beginning of a move outise and against the unions, as we believe. Partly this is done by falsely amalgamating the views of the “left” (particularly the trotskyists) with those of genuine revolutionaries. Douglass makes a reasonable job of exposing the left’s contradictory and arrogant attitude towards workers in struggle but his position in the N.U.M prevents him from dealing adequately with revolutionary criticism.

A reasonable demolition job on Douglass’s arguments has already been done in the Wildcat pamphlet “outside and against the unions“. and against the unions”. Other useful material on this debate can also be found in “Echanges” (from BP241, 75866 PARIS CEDEX 18, FRANCE in English and French). We don’t intend to repeat all these arguments ‘here but a few points are worth making.

In saying that trade unions and trade unionism are a barrier to the successful extension and development of the class struggle we are not saying that unions will never support or even organise industrial action.

Firstly, the trade union officials if they are to maintain their role as the workers’ ‘representatives’ and junior partners in the management of capitalism must be able to demonstrate their control of their ‘constituency’. This means that in the face of militancy amongst their members’ action’ of some kind has to be proposed – but the purpose of the action is to maintain their control not promote the workers’ interests.

Secondly, capitalism is made up of numerous sectional interests. The ruling class is only united when faced with a potentially revolutionary opposition In normal circumstances different sections of the ruling class are at each others throats. Different sections will be on top at different times. It is quite possible for trade union officials or a particular group of trade union officials to have to fight for their interests or even their survival within capitalism. That may even require wheeling in their members to do battle on their behalf. In some cases, and we suggest this applied to the miners and the NUM in 1984/5, both the workers and the union officials and their organisation can be under threat at the same time. In this situation understanding the different interests of each when both are involved in a ‘life or death’ struggle is much more difficult, but none-the-Iess necessary. The old adage that “our enemies’ enemies are not necessarily our friends” is worth remembering.

Thirdly, whilst we think it is necessary in any major struggle for workers to move outside the union framework, this process can often happen in practice, in only a halting and partial way. It is up to revolutionaries to encourage this process not try to tie it back into the union framework as Douglass wants to.

And lastly it is true to say that there are many aspects to the nature of the British coal mining industry and its relationship to miners and the union which make the case of the NUM not entirely typical of British and other unions. Douglass continually makes the mistake of generalising from the experience of the NUM rather than looking at the actual experience of other workers and the unions they belong to.

All in all we have to say that the writing of this book was a wasted opportunity.

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What’s Wrong With Anti-Racism

September 1, 2010 1 comment

From Subversion, No. 15 (Summer 1994)

Subversion is not anti-racist because “we are all human beings” or “we all have the same colour blood” or “we should all be able to live together, respecting each others different cultures, religions. colour. etc”. Subversion is anti-racist because racism is one of the ideological tools used by our rulers to keep the international working class divided and unaware of the thing which binds all the worlds workers together the fact that we are the working class: that we must sell our labour power to survive: that we are wage slaves.

Racism has been used to justify genocide and slavery in the past but now it is used to help keep class consciousness at bay. Instead of seeing the world as being made up of bosses and workers we are meant to see it filled up with “foreigners”. We are meant to see all the people who live in France as one group, instead of as it really is: a small group of exploiters and the mass of exploited, just as it is in Britain. Just as we are encouraged to identity with the very same scum who rip us off, make us work. sack us, send us to war, we are also encouraged to identity “foreign” workers with the very scumbags who rip them off. We are meant to blame migrant workers for local unemployment. We are meant to fear everyone in Japan or Germany because they are surely conspiring to wreck “our economy”, aren’t they?

Divided and ruled

Just as racism in its basic forms helps dilute and divert working class consciousness so does the “anti-racist” formula: “we are all human beings”. This sort of argument tries to say that “we” are an in it together, “we” means bosses and workers, the leaders and the led, the powerful and the powerless. Once again we (the working class) are supposed to identity with our exploiters (the bosses/bourgeoisie) and THEIR murdering economy, capitalism. This use of the word “we” to describe all humans is a clever way of denying class, notice how Greenies say that “we” have ruined the planet. Are they stupid? Do they really think that all humans are to blame, all the masses of people who have been thrown off the land, all the masses of proletarians who have starved, been killed by poverty, forced to work like slaves all their lives? Anyone with half an ounce of sense can see that the great majority of the worlds population has never had any control over even their own lives let alone the actions of those people who live on our backs. Anyone who uses the word “we” to describe every person in the world either has no idea that there is an exploiting class and an exploited class, or wants to have at least some say in the ordering about and bleeding dry of the working class. And this is certainly the aim of left-wingers who say “we an all human beings”, as well as the “green” movement.

Pro-capitalist anti-racism

The anti-racism of the Labour movement is pro-capitalism anti-racism, you won’t catch the leader of the TUC saying that racism is a tool used by the ruling class to keep the international working class divided. The leader of the TUC will say that racism is a cancer that divides society, and that it is stirred up by right wing elements. Yes, racism may be stirred up by capitalism’s right wing defenders, but society is already divided into classes – only a defender of capitalism and the present order of things could call racism a threat to society. There is NOTHING about this society worth defending but it is essential for workers to fight racism in the working class as part of the struggle to raise class consciousness and unite against capitalism. While the Labour Movement might defend a “black” member of the boss class who is under racist attack, we could not. What we would do is use the incident to point out the fact that racism is a tool of the ruling class to keep us confused and in our place, but we could never defend this “black” boss or her/his “right” to trade, give orders, make profits. etc. – if we defended the rights of anyone to lord it over us we would be anti-working class.

What is race anyway?

At the beginning of this article an example of racism was given which involved only attitudes between France and Britain. Some people might say that this is not racism because the “white” French and the British are of the same “race”, they might call it “chauvinism” instead. The people who argue this obviously think that there are real biological differences between people in the world, they would categorise all people with a similar skin colour into a specific racial type (African, Eurasian etc.) therefore arguing that “racism” can only happen between these different coloured groups and that only “chauvinism” can happen between people of different countries but who share the same colour. Other people argue that racism can only be defined in terms of a “dominant country” exploiting a “minor country”, or the legacy of this exploitation. Thus British, “white” people can only be racist to people from all its ex-colonies, although in effect they really mean anyone in those countries that Britain is perceived to be superior to. In this philosophy people from the ex-colonies cannot be racist towards “white” British people, what whites might perceive as racism (e g., “fuck off you “white” bastard”) is, in fact, anti-imperialism!


It’s not worth trying to find your way around the torturous and inane logic of the proponents of the ideas described above. If we want to understand what racism really has to do with our daily lives, what the reality of it is, then we must look at it from a class perspective. We must understand who actually benefits from it and why it is an enemy of class struggle. Never mind all the dubious philosophical ins and outs of it racism sets workers against workers and obscures who our real enemies are – the manipulators and benefactors of a divided and confused working class.

Papist Plots and Anti-Semitism

If you want any proof of the good work racism has done for the bosses you only have to take a cursory glance through history. In the 1840’s and ’50’s the Tory Party began a campaign against Irish workers in Britain in order to divide the Chartist Movement. Tory henchmen carried out several atrocities against workers in the North and West, which were blamed on Irish workers. Meanwhile the ruling class tried to whip up fear of “Papist Plots” and migrant labour taking work from “the English”. While the specific incidents have been forgotten the effects of this campaign to divide the working class are still evident in England. It’s no coincidence that anti-Semitism began to be encouraged in Germany after World War One. Things had to be done to fragment a proletariat that had created a revolution in 1919 and might try again in the new economic depression of the 1920’s. It was funny how a couple of years ago we heard lots about strikes in the new “unified” Germany but now most of the news concerns the “rising tide of racism”. It has proved very handy for the German Labour Movement and the bosses in general to be able to urge workers to see “society” under threat from nazi types. It’s a brutal way of diverting a rising class combativity, and i who benefits? The bosses of course.


In general, it seems, we are likely to see more racism when the economy is in “recession” and when it seems likely that workers might fight back. Since the Trafalgar Square riot and the defeat of the Poll Tax we have seen a marked rise in actual racist attacks, media coverage and the Labour Movement getting back on the anti-racist bandwagon. Is it a coincidence?

Today racism does have fairly deep roots in the working class but racism and nationalism tend to be pushed aside
during rising class struggle. What we must ask ourselves is who would benfit from a dissipation of the spirit of rebellion that was brought on by the Poll Tax? Certainly the bosses and certainly the Labour Movement, of which even the left wing (Militant) crapped themselves because of the riot. Instead of it getting out of hand, thinking that if we i beat the Poll Tax we could beat other things, instead of escalating the class struggle, it’s much better for us to worry about rising nazism and go on well-policed and harmless marches, where we can hear our Labour Movement leaders going on about the “threat i to society” posed by racism. But they don’t really want racism to go away, just as they don’t want capitalism, oppression and wage slavery to go away either. And racism is so useful to world capitalism that only a fool could believe that they’d let it disappear. Racism can only be defeated in struggle and only the destruction of global capitalism and the creation of true human community will put it to rest forever, because no longer will it serve any use.

Opportunity Knocks

It will be argued, of course, that things like Equal Opportunities [specifically, the Commission for Racial Equality, 1976] have done a lot to erode racist attitudes and allow “black” workers, as well as women and the disabled, to “do well” in the workplace. In fact bosses in large companies (including local councils, Royal Mail, etc.) see Equal Opportunities as a numbers game.

Managers are given targets for the percentage of “black” workers they should employ and if they achieve these targets they look much better to their superiors. It goes something like this: the Government realises that “‘black” people need to be better integrated into the workforce (why does the State like “black” police officers?), so they set up things like the Commission for Racial Equality, which, very handily, makes the Government look like it disagrees with racism;

Employers are then encouraged to set up an Equal Opportunities policy, being persuaded that they don’t really want to look like an old fashioned racist and sexist company, do they? And anyway, local councils and Government might not buy products and services from companies that don’t pursue Equal Opportunities, they’ve got the “black”, women and disabled vote to think of, after all. And so managers recruit more “under-represented” people, not because anyone in this whole chain is actually anti-racist but simply because everyone in the chain is looking after their own interests (i.e. their profits or power).

We mustn’t let ourselves get caught up in their game. The very least that Equal Opportunities might have done for “black” workers in Britain is have made it easier to get a job now. But even this is not true, is it? There is a far greater percentage of “black” people unemployed than “white” people, let’s face it, it was easier for “black” people to get work in the 1950’s, when there was no such thing as Equal Opportunities!

The capitalists are playing games with us, “Black” workers are supposed to defend a “society” that has Equal Opportunities written into law. A society that says it is anti-racist, and yet “black” workers are worse off now than they were 20 or 30 years ago (as all workers are, of course), and for all this Equal Opportunities bullshit we now have another “rising tide of racism”. Racism and “anti-racism”: for our rulers both are tricks to keep us under the heel.

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Beyond Rank and Vile Trade Unionism

September 1, 2010 1 comment

From Subversion, No. 14 (Spring 1994)

First it is necessary to spell out what we do not mean – that is the myth of a ‘rank and file’ straining at the leash, only held back by a cunning and devious trade union bureaucratised leadership. Today it is obvious such a movement does not exist, but it is doubtful if in reality this ever was the case except for a brief period after the First World War. There have been rank and file groupings in many industries and unions, but except for isolated instances and in very specific circumstances they have not challenged the outlook or mentality of conventional trade unionism. So first we have to establish to some extent what constitutes a genuine challenge to existing trade unionism rather than merely a ‘loyal opposition’ to existing workers organisations. (In this regard we do not refer merely to the existing trade unions – but to the whole outlook and philosophy of what is known as ‘ the Labour Movement’.)

Today our contention is that what passes for the ‘Labour Movement’ is entirely reactionary. We do not mourn its passing, but wish to point out the necessity of recognising this reality. Everything that has in the past been presented as the socialist project is now revealed as part of capitalism’s management of its crisis. All that has hitherto been assumed as being in the workers interests – the welfare state, post war consensus politics, the commitment to ‘full employment’ is now revealed as merely the result of the old movements’ politics to tie us more closely to the system.

As such it must be rejected.
Workers Movement versus the Movement of the Workers.

Now this might seem a rather pessimistic conclusion, but we believe it is as well to start off from a realistic appreciation of the situation so that anyone proposing either to start a ‘rank and file ‘ grouping or faced with one already in existence can begin to arrive at some kind of analysis of what they are doing. In our experience there has been and is far too much uncritical action simply for actions sake. We want to avoid the situation where militants end up isolated, left only to protest futilely at the latest ‘betrayal’ or even worse in the name of some mythical ‘unity’ obliged to present the latest stitch up between management and unions as some kind of ‘victory’. Much of the present disorientation amongst the working class is not the result of the ‘Thatcher revolution’ (which we are convinced will soon be revealed as nothing of the sort,) but of the fact that a sea change has taken place in politics internationally and the old certainties (held in place by the Cold War) have gone. The traditional institutions that the working class looked to for help in times past, principally the Unions and the Labour Party, are now revealed for what they are pillars of the system and defenders of the status quo.

We propose to look at ‘rank and file’ groups under five main headings which although they are treated separately here for the purposes of analysis are in fact inter-dependent and inter-related. It is our view that we are working towards a coherent outlook, and one of the main purposes of attending this conference is not only to broaden and deepen our own understanding but to see if what we have worked out strikes a chord with other participants or even if someone else has arrived at a better understanding than ourselves. However it would not be correct to give the impression necessarily that we are prepared to give up on what we have fought so hard to understand. For instance our understanding of the place of trade unions in capitalist society or the role of the Labour Party is not something we are prepared to compromise.

That being said our five headings are as follows:-

* The Distinction between Minority and Mass (or majority organisations)

* A ‘rank and file’ populism against the development of a coherent political understanding and outlook (or reformism versus revolution)

* The relationship between rank and file organisations and the existing trade union structure

* The question of the creation of permanent institutions of a rank and file nature.

* The relationship (if any) of rank and file movements to political parties

(i) The distinction between minority and mass organisations.

In modern capitalist society mass organisations of a genuinely representative type no longer exist. It is inconceivable that we will witness a rebirth of trade unions as mass organisations. It would be as well to remember that the original founding of trade unions in this country was by minorities of skilled craftsmen. Mass unionism is very much a product of modern society and modern unions owe their structure and organisation to the post Second World War consensus which is now breaking” up.

In this situation it would be as well for rank and file movements to recognise their necessarilv minority character, rather than pretending to speak for the amorphous mass of workers. If this is the case then they have no need to hold back or pretend that initially at least they are anything other than political organisations pursuing a particular programme. It therefore makes no sense to hide this political character, rather it should be openly acknowledged. Moreover it is our view that such movements will be obliged to take on an increasingly social dimension. It is no longer possible to maintain the old social-democratic split between ‘political’ and economic’ questions on which the Labour Party was founded.

This leads us directly on to our second heading concerning the question of populism versus a coherent political outlook.

(ii) Reform versus Revolution

In the past we have had cause to question what we termed ‘money militancy’. By this we meant that whatever reforms we won in terms of money or working conditions, of necessity, such ‘victories’ always turned out to be short lived. Inflation always ate away at our gains. We always found ourselves in a minority shouting about a ‘betrayal’ – but if the union demands £10 should a revolutionary policy be to demand £20? Today although it is possible that a new wages movement might emerge, we doubt that it could achieve even the modest gains which were so easily wiped away in the 70s. So around what practical programme could a rank and file movement emerge?

Today the system itself constantly proposes reforms with which it hopes to draw in any opposition, so what attitude should a rank and file movement take to this process. Our answer to this is to reject the whole project for reforming the system and to argue for its abolition. This is not to dismiss anyone who finds themselves drawn into existing organisations – it is above all a practical question. In the past socialist groupings had to come to practical decisions on this point. The pre First World War SLP actually forbad its members from taking up union positions – again this leads us directly onto our next point, the relationship of any rank and file movement to the existing trade unions.

(iii) ‘Rank and File’ and the existing Trade Unions

It should be fairly clear by now that we see no role for the trade unions in any future stuggle. We do not want to make a fetish of this, it obviousy’ depends on circumstances. But even where a movement utilises the existing union base machinery (for example combine committees, or local area committees) and it is looked on favourably by the local trade union bureaucracy (as regards funds, premises, printing facilities and so on) at crucial moments (that is the only ones that matter) this dependence will be the undoing of the movement. A classic example of this was the London Busmen’s Combined Committee broken by Bevin and the TGWU in 1937.

Not only therefore do we see no positive role for the trade unions, hut we believe of necessity that any rank and file movement can only emerge in opposition to them. This has been the experience abroad and especially we believe in Italy with the COBAS movement. Indeed in our opinion it is a good sign of the health of such a movement to see how much opposition from the existing unions it inspires. It also follows therefore that all attempts at democratising the unions or pressurising union leaderships to take action are futile and a waste of time and indeed positively reactionary.

(iv) Permanent Organisation?

We have shown how it is impossible for new mass organisations to emerge except at times of exceptional crisis (indeed one of the ways you know you are in a crisis is the practical question of the emergence of such institutions). In our view it would be a mistake to try and artificially prolong the life of such organisations outside periods of struggle by making them permanent. If we accept that movements ebb and flow, that disputes are going to be resolved on whatever terms at least temporarily, then the need for a fighting organisation fades away. Any attempt to artificially prolong it risks ossifying it at best and at worst turning it into a fully fledged capitalist organisation (by obliging it to maintain itself with finance, permanent staff or the usual risk with working class organisations – the treasurer runs of with the funds).

Prior to the dockers attempts to take over (by joining ‘en masse’) the ‘blue’ union (NASD) in the 1950s, rank and tile organisation was kept alive as a political idea not by any organisational device. It was only the fact that some dockers influenced by Trotskyism wanted to take over a union (and ultimately to have some influence over the Labour Party itself) that made them believe that they could ‘take shelter’ under the umbrella of the NASD.

(v) Relationship to Politics Parties

If you’re not part of the solution then you must be part of the problem!

We have said already that any rank and file movement is by its nature the organisation of a political minority. How then does it differ from any one of the different Leftist groups which are also political minorities?

Only in the ways we which we have already outlined. We have already stated our views on the old ‘Labour Movement’, and as there are not many leftist groups which would subscribe to them so they are almost automatically excluded.

If only life were so simple!

Apart from those movements which are merely fronts for already established parties – a genuine rank and file movement would begin by trying to outgrow its sectional roots, by breaking out of the limitations that capitalist society imposes on it and become social in character. Other political groupings, who of course it is impossible to exclude from such a development either help or hinder such a process.