Posts Tagged ‘communism’

Beyond The Fragments: Feminism and the Making of Socialism (Introduction) by Hilary Wainwright

January 20, 2013 1 comment

The following post is the introduction (written by Hilary Wainwright) from the book Beyond The Fragments: Feminism and the Making of Socialism. Although originally printed in 1979, this is from the second edition “revised and enlarged”. The foreword and acknowledgements are already available on Libcom. By posting this introduction I hope to commit myself to post the rest of the book in installments, I will mostly be working on the scanning on Sundays and will post on Libcom once complete.

I’m going to go ahead and post the blurb before the introduction…

This is the most sustained argument for a reappraisal on the left of all its traditions that has yet to come out of the women’s movement in Britain. It is written by three women who have been active in both feminist and socialist politics. Whether from the experience of Leninist organizations, or of libertarian politics, each writer analyses the problems and contradictions of her own personal background.

The women’s movement not only suggests different ways of organizing for socialist politics, but also critically questions the way the left has integrated the insights of the women’s movement and confronted its own reproduction of authoritarian and hierarchical structures. The authors argue not just for a rhetorical acceptance of feminism, but for a redefinition of priorities, a new approach to theory and consciousness, and for an open and searching examination of past and present forms of organisation.

They do not offer ‘answers’ – indeed their distinct concern and emphases would make that impossible – but instead hope that their ideas will be discussed amongst socialist and feminists involved in a wide range of activities and hope that through their effort other people will be encouraged to speak their mind and communicate their understanding.

By Louis Mackay

By Louis Mackay


Hilary Wainwright

After a decade of intense socialist agitation, more working-class people than ever in post-war years voted Tory at the last election. At the same time, fewer people than at any election since 1931 voted for the Labour Party. It seems then that as far as the mass influence of socialist politics is concerned, not only have we a long way to go, but in one respect at least we have not been moving forwards.

Of course, the way people vote does not sum up their consciousness. Many of those who did not vote Labour will undoubtedly have been active in militant strikes and demonstrations over the last few months. And a low vote for the Callaghan government was more indicative of the crisis facing the Labour Party than the failure of socialist agitation. But when the reactionary rhetoric of Tory ‘freedom’ can evoke such a groundswell of working-class support, socialists need to ask a few questions about our inability to translate the awareness of a vanguard of socialist activists in to any lasting change in mass consciousness. The inability applies both to socialists organized through the Labour Party and, in a different way to socialists organized in Leninist parties.

The flaw which they have in common is that they both are organized in ways more appropriate to seizing power – governmental power and state power respectively – than to the necessary preliminaries of raising and extending socialist consciousness and grass-roots organization among the majority of working people. In the former case the priorities of the electoral machine, the overriding imperative of retaining or gaining parliamentary/council power tends to suppress political debate and inhibit political involvement in industrial and social struggles. In the latter case, the pretensions and disciplines of democratic centralism tend to produce an arrogance and sectarianism which make the Leninist groups unable to contribute to and encourage the many sources of socialist initiative and activity. The Communist Party too has its own version of organizing for power before organizing to change consciousness, in its desire for trade union positions often at the cost of challenging the apathy and conservatism still prevalent on the shop floor.

We feel that the women’s movement has, at the very least, raised the consciousness, and encouraged the self-organization of thousands of women. In doing so it has also begun to challenge relations of power. If the left is to achieve the change in consciousness and the growth in self-organization which is a condition for resolving the problem of power, then there is much that socialists can learn from the women’s movement’s values and ways of organizing. For we cannot just put the problems down to ‘objective conditions’ like socialists tended to during the boom years of the fifties and sixties. In many ways objective conditions have never made socialism seem so necessary and so achievable. Capitalism’s self-justification as the natural means of meeting human needs and expanding human possibilities seems more obviously groundless than ever, with every structure of the economy out of joint with human needs (not just the ‘declining’ sections of industry as in the thirties). Health services are short of money while private corporations keep millions in ‘deferred’ – unpaid – tax; thousands are homeless with building workers on the dole; millions are spent on the technology of defence while cheap heating, nurseries, aids to the handicapped, preventive medicine, public transport systems, etc., still remain primitive; and so the list goes on, touching on everyone’s day-to-day experience. In such conditions the possibility of producing for need rather than profit, of planning production by working people rather than by the civil service or the corporations should seem more relevant than ever. Moreover, the means – or at least the groundwork – for achieving such a society, the organizations created by working people themselves, have grown in numbers and, with occasional setbacks, in strength, as the crisis has deepened. It’s not like the thirties when a socialist vision was there – whatever criticisms we may now make of it – but the strength was lacking. Not only have the traditional workers’ organizations, so far, retained their grass-roots strength but also oppressed groups which were previously passive or angry in isolation, women, gays, blacks and youth, have become militant and organized.

Why Go Beyond The Fragments?

Our concern in writing this book is with the forms of organization necessary to develop socialist consciousness out of this grass-roots industrial and social strength. Perhaps this concern in itself needs some justification. ‘Why go beyond the fragments?’ radical feminists, syndicalists and others might ask. After all, they might say, socialist organizations have not been spectacularly successful in fighting against inequality, arbitrary power, exploitation, racial, sexual and other forms of oppression. A wider political organization, they might add, blunts the power of the autonomous movements. Their conclusion is that the best chance of success for each movement is through the direct exertion of their own power.

There might be some logic in this if all the inequalities and sources of exploitation and oppression which the women’s movement, the trade union movement, the black movement, etc., are up against were separate, unconnected to each other. If workers were simply up against bosses, women up against the sexual division of labour and sexist culture, blacks against racial repression and discrimination, with no significant connection between these forms of oppression, no state power linking and overseeing the institutions concerned, then strong independent movements would be enough. But it is precisely the connections between these sources of oppression, both through the state and through the organization of production and culture, which makes such a piecemeal solution impossible.

For example, consider all the connections which lie behind the demands of the women’s movement. To win these demands there would have to be a massive shift from corporate profits to socially useful facilities (nurseries, abortion, day-care facilities, and so on) and from defence expenditure to expenditure on health and education; there would have to be a radical reorganization of work and control over work, to provide men and women with full opportunities for childcare and leisure, without jeopardizing job prospects; there would have to be a democratization of health and education and of the media, among other things, if women’s needs were to be met. The list of all the wider ramifications of women’s liberation could be extended, but from this list alone it is clear that our demands challenge all the priorities of the present-and previous-governments. Moreover they challenge the vested interests of the armed forces, the big corporations and hierarchy of the civil service. Changes of this sort affect and concern all the other movements of oppressed people, workers, blacks, youth, and so on. Unless women’s demands are integrated with the needs of these other groups then it is unlikely that women’s demands will ever get the support necessary to take on the powerful vested interests they are up against. For example, without incessant argument for an alternative which meets the needs of all oppressed and exploited groups, trade unionists in the private sector will see our demands for more social expenditure as a threat to their jobs; council house tenants will see our demands as competition for scarce resources, and so on.

So one problem is that of drawing up a common programme of political and social change, meeting the needs of all oppressed groups, and arguing for it among each group. The other problem is that of gathering together all the different sources of strength, uniting the social power of the community with the industrial power of those in production, and pitching this popular power against the existing state. This requires a strategy, based on the ideas and experiences of each movement, and drawing from the lessons of past struggles and from international experiences. The solution to these problems needs more than just ad hoc contact between the different movements. Neither is the merging of the movements any solution; there are good reasons for each movement preserving its autonomy, controlling its own organization. For women, blacks, trade unionists, gays, youth, and national minorities have specific interests which may sometimes be antagonistic to each other both now and probably in a socialist society. The solution lies in bringing together all those involved in the different movements and campaigns who agree on a wider programme of socialist change, based on the demands of the different movements in the context of organizing for social ownership and popular political power.

New Ways of Organizing

In organizational terms this could imply some sort of federal structure which provides a framework for united actions following from the fundamental principles on which revolutionaries could agree, for collective discussion of our differing experiences and traditions, and autonomy to take initiatives where tactical disagreements keep us apart. But this book is not about organizational prescriptions. It is rather intended to begin a discussion of the limits of traditional principles of revolutionary and social democratic organizations, in the light of the advances and insights made by recent movements, starting with the women’s liberation movement.

The method by which Sheila Rowbotham theorizes the problems of socialist organization is very different from that which has dominated discussions within and between left groups; though it is not hostile to these discussions. Her argument draws on a variety of past experiences of creating socialist organizations – including but not restricted to the Leninist tradition. It draws critically from the classic theorists of socialist organizations. But her central contribution is to theorize and give political credence to many of the organizational principles and insights of what most political organizations would treat as a ‘sectoral’ movement, of significance only within that ‘sector’.

Of course the struggles of the women’s movement are focused on a specific oppression: the oppression of women as a sex. But the women’s movement, like all other movements arising to resist a particular oppression, also has a wider significance for the way we organize as socialists. For every form of subordination suppresses vital understandings which can only be fully achieved and communicated through the liberation of the oppressed group itself. No ‘vanguard’ organization can truly anticipate these understandings. For example, no such organization had any real understanding of the subjectivity of oppression, of the connections between personal relations and public political organization, or of the emotional components of consciousness, until the women’s movement had brought these issues to the surface and made them part of political thought and action.

If a revolutionary movement is to be truly able to encourage, develop and guide the self-activity and the organized power of the oppressed then it must be able to learn from and contribute to these understandings. It must be organized in a way which can bring them together into a vision of socialist transformation. To a very large extent socialist politics should derive, and at times has derived, its main content from these understandings. But one reason why socialism has become so sterile and dead to most working class people in the post-war years is because it has not, until recently, become open to the understandings arrived at through the movements of oppressed groups and classes. The debates of political parties have, until the late sixties, tended to be seen as ‘above’ the concerns of specific movements, except insofar as an item might be added to a programme. In relation to this, Sheila quotes Fernando Claudin, who, in his book on Eurocommunism, pointed to this tendency in the Communist Party and other left parties:

to regard political action as a private reserve and to try and restrict other organizations-the trade unions, organs of grassroots democracy, the women’s movement, etc.-each to their own ‘specific problems’, preventing them from taking initiatives in relation to general questions.

In the past five years or so some process of learning and dialogue has gone on within the political organizations. But in general it has been limited to the specific ‘sectoral’ concerns of each movement. Fernando Claudin’s description still applies. For example, revolutionary organizations will readily admit that they’ve learnt about sexism through the women’s movement, racism through black organizations, etc. But when it comes to developing the principles of revolutionary politics, the principles or organizing which seek to overthrow capitalism as a whole, this has traditionally been the internal concern and monopoly of formally political organizations. Such a view had some justification at the time of mass socialist or communist parties as in Europe in the 1900s and the 1920s, when the vast majority of socialist activists in the various social and industrial movements, for example the shop stewards’ movements of that time, were also members of mass political parties. In these conditions the developments within the movements would have a direct political expression, and an influence on the shape of the political organization. New political initiatives and sometimes new political organizations would arise from debates and sometimes splits would be stimulated by the movements, but occurring from within these parties.

By contrast, one reason why socialists now have to make a much more conscious effort to theorize the understandings of these movements is because we do not have such a close relation to a mass socialist party. On the contrary, we are now faced with creating a socialist organization not primarily through debates, struggles and splits within existing parties (although that will be an important part of the process especially in relation to the Labour Party), but through the coming together of socialists based in the various ‘sectoral’ movements, the majority of whom are not members of any political party. For the radicalization which took place in the late sixties occurred against the background of a virtual political vacuum and a real discontinuity in the influence of the traditional workers’ parties, the Labour Party especially. The conditions of the boom were one factor: militant industrial organizations had grown accustomed to gaining partial victories without any active involvement in the Labour Party. And when the Labour Party returned to office it became so quickly integrated into the capitalist state, and the Labour left showed so little sign of activity that industrial militants, plus the new movements of students, women, and black organizations, were quickly thrown onto their own resources.

In this situation the women’s movement, solidarity movements with international struggles, many shop stewards’ combines or local action committees, the anti-fascist movement, theatre groups, alternative newspapers, militant tenants, squatters and community groups have themselves become a political focus. That is to say, the vast majority of people who became socialists – through many different routes – after the boom, tended to concentrate their energies on activities and organizations directly concerned with their own lives, experiences and skills. Many briefly passed through, worked with, or eclectically drew on the activities and ideas of the revolutionary groups (the IS and IMG especially). And these groups have at different times been very important catalysts and educators. But only a small minority of socialists have found either these groups, or for different reasons the Communist Party or Labour Party, to be an adequate political framework. The rest have applied and developed their socialism in more specific areas of struggle, building up ideas on broader ways of organizing from these limited and often localized experiences.

By pointing to the present strength of these fragmented working-class activities we do not want to imply that these are timelessly superior to a co-ordinated national organization. As Lynne describes later in this book, there are serious limits to, for example, isolated local organizations. She explores the question of organizing from her experience of the efforts of libertarian Marxists and anarchists to form non-hierarchical networks in the early 1970s. She shows the similarities and interconnections between libertarianism and some aspects of the women’s movement in this period. Both movements shared a basic openness to tackling dilemmas which faced people in their everyday life. She traces the development of these politics in the area of London in which she lives, through women’s centres and the Islington Gutter Press, which has shown itself to be among the most resilient and popular of the local papers which sprang up in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Such accounts of local radical activity are vital. Unrecorded they disappear even from the recent political memory.

Nonetheless, after spending eight years within the local movement of Islington radicalism she has become very aware of the real vulnerability and limitations inherent both in women’s community activity and indeed of an isolated localism which lacks political links to activity elsewhere. This slow but growing realization was behind her decision to join a small nationally-based group, Big Flame, last year.

At a more general level it is also obvious that the National Front could never have been so effectively challenged if it had not been for the national focus and leadership the Socialist Workers Party, as well as members of other organizations, in the Anti-Nazi League. Most industrial struggles, whether against government wage restraint or closures in a multi-plant company, require national – if not international – co-ordination. The women’s movement derives strength and support from being international as well. A mass socialist newspaper – which perhaps Socialist Worker or Women’s Voice could become if they were more open to rank and file organizations and less party recruitment papers – and a paper for the left, like Socialist Challenge, clearly require national co-ordination. And looking into the longer term, a revolutionary movement will only succeed through the overthrow of the national state machinery and its international supports. What I would suggest though is that in creating the wide network of links which make up a political rather than single issue movement, the local impetus will at this stage be crucial. When a new movement is not emerging only as a split from an existing, cohesive political party, people will tend to build these wider links with people they know and trust; and they will do so in ways that are close to their own experience. This will tend to mean that the possibilities in the localities, of going beyond the fragments, of creating the foundations of a revolutionary movement, will for a time be far greater than on a national level.

We have had occasional glimpses of what such alliances could be: a means of exchanging the understandings arrived at by different movements – industrial militants, for example, contributing their sharp sense of the material sources of working-class power, that flows from a detailed knowledge of how production is organized, or feminists challenging the competitive ego-tripping and ego-trampling arrogance which still erodes the collective strength and democracy of many trade union and socialist organizations (it afflicts feminist organizations too sometimes but at least we’re very conscious of the problem); a forum for political debate and discussion through which the truths and weaknesses of different traditions can be sifted and tested in relation to the contemporary problems; a focus for socialist culture and ideas, and a resource centre for organizing campaigns and struggles. It was partly from a desire to build on and improve on these beginnings that we decided to write this book.

The Insights of Feminism

In the three contributions which make up this book we discuss some of the difficulties which need to be overcome to create such a democratic, and united – albeit loosely – socialist organization out of those involved in all the fragmented movements, campaigns and political groups in which socialists are involved. We have written it because we feel the experiences of the women’s liberation movement have much to contribute to overcome the problems which hold back the growth of such an organization.

The women’s movement, arising as it does to resist an oppression which comes from inequalities of power and confidence in interpersonal relations, and from a hierarchical division of labour, has been intensely sensitive and self-conscious about inequality and hierarchy in the creating of its organizational forms. In this process the women’s movement has made important insights which are directly relevant to how we organize as socialists. Moreover, again because of the form of oppression which it confronts, the women’s movement has radically extended the scope of its politics and, with this, has changed who is involved in politics and how. Much of the oppression of women takes place ‘in private’, in areas of life considered ‘personal’. The causes of that oppression are social and economic, but these causes could only be revealed and confronted when women challenged the assumptions of their personal life, of who does the housework, of the way children are brought up, the quality of our friendships, even the way we make love and with whom. These were not normally the subject of politics. Yet these are the problems of everyday life, the problems about which women talk most to other women (and about which many men would talk more if they could). When the women’s movement made these issues part of socialist politics, it began to break down the barriers which have kept so many people, especially women, out of politics. Before the women’s movement, socialist politics, like all other sorts of politics, seemed something separate from everyday life, something unconnected with looking after children, worrying about the meals and the housework, finding ways of enjoying yourself with your friends, and so on. It was something professional, for men, and among men, for the shop steward or the party activist. The activities of the women’s movement have begun to change that as far as women are concerned. But it’s meant a different way of organizing, a way of organizing which does not restrict political activity to, ‘the professional’.

The insights of the women’s movement then do not simply concern the issue of ‘sexism’ in a socialist organization. They could contribute in general ways to creating a more democratic, more truly popular and more effective socialist movement than was possible before.

Answering the Criticisms

Since we produced the first edition of this book the issues raised have been debated at many meetings and taken up in reviews. We have received a large number of letters, more requests to speak than we can possibly manage and been involved in lengthy discussions.

In response to the first edition of Beyond the Fragments a lot of people would say, ‘It’s all very nice your talk of the need for a socialist organization that can both allow for the open expression of conflict between different groups and develop the particular understandings which these differences bring to socialism, but you don’t really say anything practical about getting there!’ That’s a true comment but there are good reasons. First, our limited experiences do not give us the grounds for confidence to arrive at such general practical conclusions. Secondly, we question the idea that you can really only step into the debate about political organization when you have a general solution, a clear way forward. There would never have been a women’s movement at all if we had accepted this approach. Often the inadequacies of traditional ways of organizing initially become apparent through very specific experiences. It is important that these are expressed and reflected on, partial though they be. If change and innovation to cope with new conditions, new problems had to wait for a new masterplan (or mistressplan for that matter!) the old ways would become ossified and there would be little chance of change. So we have written from our common experiences in the women’s movement and from the interaction of these experiences with our other particular involvements in revolutionary groups, in local socialist newspapers and socialist centres and in work with other working-class organizations. We have written in the hope that others would complete, develop or modify the picture from their different experiences; and that maybe out of that process would come a clearer way forward.

The discussions we have had since the first edition have not changed our view of these necessary limits of what we are doing. But they have made us see the need, first, to be more explicit about the general political assumptions behind our discussion of the insights of the women’s movement; secondly, to draw out more practically the general political directions in which our conclusions tend. Thirdly, we have become aware of the need to move outside arguments which are only about the revolutionary left, the women’s movement or local community politics and tackle the wider context of labour politics. So in ‘Moving Beyond the Fragments’ I try to draw together .some of the developments on the extra-parliamentary left and consider their relationship to the Labour Party and the contribution feminism has made and would make to them.

There has also been criticism that in Beyond the Fragments we did not discuss the nature of the state. We do not make it clear whether we think socialists should aiming to control it, change it, overthrow it and what will be our alternative. A full discussion of this requires several volumes! All we can do is make clear our basic assumptions.

The Women’s Movement and the State

The women’s movement has come repeatedly into conflict with the state. The force of the police has been used against for instance the ‘Miss World’ demonstrators in the early seventies; against women picketing during strikes, Irish women, Astrid Proll, ‘Reclaim the Night’ marchers. But on the whole, the areas of struggle have been around male-dominated definitions of the law, e.g., in relation to lesbian mothers and rape, and around the every day and apparently benign aspects of state power, some of which Lynne and Sheila describe – for example, conflict over social security, child benefit, for nursery provision against the attitudes in medical institutions toward women’s bodies and minds. In contesting the law women have been challenging important areas of power behind the ‘common sense’ of male-dominated capitalism. In demanding control over welfare, which because of women’s position in the family is such an immediate concern, the women’, movement has focused on an old problem for socialists. Socialists have tended to either emphasize the need to strike at the directly coercive force of the state or, obversely, to make demands as if the state were a neutral force. The women’s movements has been part of a new recognition which the welfare state has made possible. First, that we need the gains made by the working class and the feminist movements of the past. Secondly, that the existence of the gains makes possible new forms of resistance in which we can fight for control over welfare. Thirdly, that no improvement is ever finally ‘achieved’. For within a capitalist society, the original radical intention can be channelled or transposed into quite different purposes. For example, welfare networks can accumulate a considerable amount of information which is sometimes used against people. When the economic tide turns no legal or social gain are secure.

The practice of the women’s movement points toward the need for an understanding of how we are faced not simply with a coercive state with a military machine which we must destroy, but also with the complex ramifications of the law and welfare, and intervention in industry and the economy, in which movements of opposition to capitalism have established a certain-albeit limited-presence. This continuing process of everyday contestation is a crucial factor in weighting the balance of forces within capitalist society. To say this is not to argue that the making of socialism will not come up against coercion, but that struggle in areas in which the state power appears to many people to be legitimate is equally important. The women’s movement has contributed towards challenging how this legitimacy is defined – for example, in questioning the dominant notion of the family in social policy. It has also begun to search for forms of resistance which acknowledge that the social resources which modern capitalism has been forced to concede are needed by people, while insisting that these must be in the control of those who use them. This requires a strategy which does not simply oscillate between rhetorical repetition of the need to smash the bourgeois state and a policy of piecemeal demands for bits of social welfare, the proverbial crumbs from the rich man’s table, easily given or taken away at his discretion. We need instead to see our everyday struggle for control as part of the creation of a new form of political power based on local, regional and national assemblies of working people controlling all areas of social life, social services, production and distribution, internal order, external defence, and foreign trade.

Such a political system could only be achieved against such sources of extra-parliamentary power as the big corporations, the financial institutions, the institutions of international banking and trade, the leadership of the army and NATO and sections of the civil service. It could not be achieved in Britain alone or through parliament alone. As the experience of Labour governments demonstrate, the extra-parliamentary institutions we have just mentioned have a power which far outweighs the power of a majority government. This is especially true of countries like Britain, so dependent on international trade and investment and therefore on the ‘goodwill’ of international financial, trading and state institutions.

For socialists to win a parliamentary majority will be important, but only on the basis of, and accountable to, a strong extra-parliamentary movement able to confront the existing state apparatus and the financial interests it protects. For it is this movement which, having destroyed the coercive powers of the present state, will provide the basis of the new democratic form of political power. The exact form of the political organizations that will be capable of giving this movement a lead, fighting for its interests within the existing political system and organizing its defence against repression and violence, cannot yet be seen. It cannot be determined until the working class and other oppressed groups have developed a level of consciousness, sense of purpose and degree of self-confidence to re-make society. The purpose of socialist organization now should be to develop that consciousness together with a vision of an alternative society.

For this we need a very flexible and yet co-ordinated form of organization. It needs to be able to build on and make links between all the initiatives towards popular democracy and control which working people are already making, however limited and fragmented these initiatives may be. Such initiatives have a long history; no socialist organization can wipe the board clean and create only the initiatives that fit in with its own scheme. At this stage, for example, it might include strengthening initiatives which are taking place in political frameworks that are not in themselves revolutionary. For example, the socialists fighting within the Labour Party for the accountability of MPs to the extra-parliamentary labour movement have at one level a common cause with socialists who are seeking to strengthen the power, and develop the consciousness of Industrial organizations, women’s groups, black movements, and so on. The principle of parliamentary accountability is an important principle in strengthening the extra-parliamentary power of working people and their local organizations. It will be a necessary part of the organization which eventually emerges as the socialist alternative to social democracy.

So we do not see the ideas in Beyond the Fragments as a one-way communication about or within the women’s movement. We hope they will be discussed among groups of socialists involved in a whole range of activities and we hope that other people will be encouraged to speak their minds and communicate their own understandings by our effort.

The three of us have all travelled differing political journeys and it will be clear we do not come at the question of how we can think about organizing from the same place. Whereas Lynne has just joined a left group, Sheila had a brief connection to another, the Socialist Workers Party, and I had a longer involvement with the International Marxist Group. But we have all three been involved in the women’s movement. Through this we have come to agree on the questions that need to be asked, though we still argue about the answers.

We have worked together on this because we feel the need to air actual political experiences, reassessing our politics by sharing these, not because we think we have the ‘answer’. We feel that any genuine, new form of socialist organization will have to grow from such a collective process.

The ‘Solidarity’ Group: Not so Solid (SPGB – 1969)

January 10, 2013 Leave a comment

‘The ‘Solidarity’ Group: Not so Solid’, Socialist Standard, No. 774 (February 1969)


Men will never be free from exploitation and oppression until all work is voluntary and access to all goods and services is free. “Socialism” means a world-wide society, democratically controlled, without profits, wages or money. This is a practical proposition now.

All attempts to solve such problems as war, poverty, loneliness, miserable and degrading toil, inside a society based on wages and profits are sure to fail. We, alone of all political organisations, use Marx’s slogan “Abolition of the wages system!”

Thousands of people come forward with plans to re-arrange the wages system. They imagine that slavery can be operated in the interests of slaves! They are wasting their time.

One such school of thought is the political group which calls itself “Solidarity.” Their case is presented in a pamphlet entitled The Meaning of Socialism, which declares that the root of misery in work is, not wage-slavery, but the system of management.

The author, Paul Cardan, proposes to keep the compulsion to work through threat of starvation. He even quotes approvingly St. Paul’s injunction “He that does not work, neither shall he eat.” Production for the market is to be retained in Cardan’s “Socialism” but it is to be “a genuine market for consumer goods, with consumers’ sovereignty.” The wages system is to be retained. We are still to be hired and fired, disciplined and dragooned—but with a difference which Mr. Cardan sees as important: instead of the majority of workers being supervised by a specially trained section of workers (management) the entire work-force in each place of production will manage itself democratically, through workers’ councils. The key feature of “Socialism” is that it will “eliminate all distinct strata of specialised or permanent managers.”

The Socialist Party rejects “workers’ management” as a solution to workers’ problems. We insist on the abolition of wages.

It is to be feared that the tyranny of your mates might prove as terrible as the tyranny of your manager, if your mates are equally as bound up with production for sale on a market. This is the crucial difference between “Solidarity” and us. We say that tinkering with administrative forms is of no use. Buying and selling must be abolished. The wage packet—the permission to live—must be abolished.

The most crucial error in Cardan’s analysis is his belief that the essential features of capitalism can be retained, and can be guided by “workers’ management” towards humane and liberating ends. The market is to remain, but not, apparently, its laws. It should be obvious that if any enterprise produces to sell, and pays its bills out of its revenue, it will be subject to the same basic market laws as any other enterprise. Of course, at the moment these laws are observed and interpreted by management, which then makes the decisions and’ imposes them on the other workers in the interests of the shareholders. But it should have occurred to Cardan that these same laws might have the same force whoever does the managing and even if the shareholders, so to speak, are the workers. This is a suggestion which members of “Solidarity” ought at least to consider.

Perhaps they will say that the important thing is the removal of the ruling class. It is true that the capitalists, like all ruling classes, live in great luxury and possess immense power. But it is a mistake to think that the workers are poor because the capitalists consume so much. On the contrary, the wealth actually consumed personally by capitalists is an insignificant (and diminishing) fraction of total wealth produced. Taking the consumption of the capitalists and sharing it out amongst the workers would result in a rise for us all of only a few shillings a week. It is a fact that our masters live off the fat of the land, but if they starved in garrets we should still be slaves. Socialists an not primarily concerned, like vulgar moralists and apostles of “fair play,” to indict the caviar and yachts of the Paul Gettys, but rather the misdirection of production: the subordination of consumption to accumulation and the immensity of organized waste and destruction.

Similarly, though the capitalist class has power, we do not merely condemn the arbitrary, irresponsible decisions of those in high places. We condemn also the decisions which capitalists and workers are forced to make as a result of the workings of capitalism’s laws of motion.

“Capitalism without capitalists” could never in fact come about. Should the working-class reach a level of understanding where they could pressurize the ruling class out of existence, they would long since have passed the stage where they would have abolished the wages system and established Socialism. And there are several purely economic arguments why escalating differences in access to wealth would always result from a wages-profits system. But even if we suspend these judgments, and consider “Capitalism without capitalists” in our imaginations, we can see it would be no improvement on capitalism with capitalists. Workers collectively administering their own exploitation not a state of affairs Which Socialist aim for.

Some advocates of “workers’ control” advance the argument that although it wouldn’t solve workers’ problems it should still be supported because workers are too simple- minded to understand the abolition of wages, and must therefore be given “workers’ control” as the sugar on the pill (except that these gentlemen invariably then forget about the pill altogether). Cardan cannot use this line argument, and this is to his credit, for he has quite correct debunked it:

“The Party . . . “knows” (or believes that it knows) that the sliding scale of wages will never be accepted by capitalism. It believes that this demand, if really fought for by the workers, will lead to a revolutionary situation and eventually to the revolution itself. If it did it would “scare the workers off” who are not “yet” ready to fight for socialism as such. So the apparently innocent demand for a sliding scale of wages is put forward as feasible . . . while “known” to be unfeasible. This is the bait which will make the workers swallow the hook and the revolutionary line. The Party, firmly holding the rod, will drag the class along into the “socialist” frying pan. All this would be a monstrous conception, were it not so utterly ridiculous.”

We would certainly endorse this attack on Vanguardism, but it is hardly enough to compensate for the page loads of absurdities which Cardan peddles.

In order to make credible his notion of “Socialism” (capitalism minus capitalism’s laws) he says that modern techniques of production are introduced under capitalism more to reduce the freedom of workers than to increase profitability:

“Machines are invented, or selected, according to one fundamental criterion: do they assist in the struggle of management against workers, do they reduce yet further the worker’s margin of autonomy, do they assist in eventually replacing him altogether? . . . No British capitalist, no Russian factory manager would ever introduce into his plant a machine which would increase the freedom of a particular worker or of a group of workers to run the job themselves, even if such a machine increased production.”

This astonishing claim is made without the smallest shred of evidence being supplied. Whilst it is possible that a few shrewd managers may accept a cut in short-term profits for the sake of insuring long-term profits by fragmenting workplace organization, the intricate conspiracy necessary for Cardan’s sweeping statement to be true would be humorous to contemplate. It borders on paranoia to attribute “ever minute division of labour and tasks” to the management‘s conscious attempts “to combat the resistance of the workers.” Division of labour, and other atomizing and features of modern techniques, are primarily the results of attempting to maintain or increase the level of profits. Modern productive methods are dictated, at a given of technology, by market laws (that is, from the management’s point of view, laws of costs and revenue) and largely outside the will of the capitalists themselves, or that of the managers.

A lot of Cardan’s propositions are developed in contrast to what he calls “Marxism.” It is quite apparent that he is abysmally ignorant of Marx’s theoretical system; the “Marxism” he denounces is the crudest mish-mash of fifth-rate Bolshevism. That is doubtless a further condemnation .of the dire results of Bolshevik confusion-mongering, but it hardly excuses Cardan for making statements about Marx without having read him.

For example, in The Meaning of Socialism, we read:

“By “Socialism” we mean the historical period which starts with the proletarian revolution and ends with communism. In thus defining it, we adhere very strictly to Marx. This is the only “transitional period” between class society and communism.”

Marx of course, never drew any distinction between Socialism and Communism, and always gave these words identical meanings. “Solidarity,” like the “Communist” Party and Trotskyists, concede that it is necessary to abolish wages and money, but say that this is an “ultimate aim” (translation: not an aim at all).

It is also claimed that Marx has been proved wrong by what happened in Russia, because private property was abolished there without his predicted results. Cardan ought to consider Marx’s statement that as long as power over people exists, private property exists. Cardan further believes that Russia has abolished unemployment, which is admittedly not ignorance of Marx, but of Russia.

It is alleged that Marx saw the domination of men by machines as an inexorable consequence of the advance of technology, as a fact which had to be accepted even in Socialism. This is an outrageous howler. Marx was at great pains to stress that the domination of living labour by dead labour was in point of fact an optical illusion. When the instruments of labour appeared to be outside the control of Man, it was in actuality the case that Man’s social relations were outside his control. Thus when Engels talks about the “mastery of the product over the producer” he does not mean that the products are actually the masters, but simply that they seem to be, as long as producers cannot control their social organization of production. They will remain unable to do so as long as these are commodity relations (1). Socialists have always emphasised that in Socialism production will be organized not just to make more goods, but also to make work itself enjoyable.

Like most Left-wingers, “Solidarity” believe that the Russian Revolution was Socialist. This belief is not an accident, but is closely related to their other misconceptions. “The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living,” wrote Marx. The Nightmare of Leftism, which weighs so heavily on the brains of today’s Romantic Revolutionaries, is the tradition of capitalist revolutions: the glorification of bloody insurrection, a mystical “Peoples Will” or “Proletarian Consciousness” which has no connection with what people actually will, or what workers actually understand, and hence the disparaging of political democracy, and the theory that revolutionary workers can be “held back” by a Party apparatus. “Solidarity” is no exception. Its ideas belong to the past; they have no future.

On the October Revolution Mr. Cardan comments:

“Many people (various social democrats, various anarchists and the Socialist Party of Great Britain) have said that nothing really happened in Russia except a coup d’état carried out by a Party which, having somehow obtained the support of the working class, sought only to establish its own dictatorship and succeeded in doing so.

We don’t wish to discuss this question in an academic manner. Our aim is not to decide whether the Russian Revolution warrants the label of proletarian revolution. The questions which are important for us are different ones. Did the Russian working class play a historical role of its own during this period? . . . The independent role played by the proletariat was clear-cut and undeniable.” (From Bolshevism To The Bureaucracy.)”

To this we can only retort that the view attributed to the Socialist Party is surely too silly to have even been held by anyone. All capitalist revolutions are highly complex phenomena, and 1917 was no exception. Cardan’s aim “is not to decide whether the Russian Revolution warrants the label of proletarian revolution,” despite the fact that in his writings he persistently refers to it as such, no less than four times in this particular pamphlet prior to the above excerpt! Of course workers played an independent role in 1917. Workers have played an independent role in every capitalist revolution without exception. That should be elementary.

Two questions have to be asked; they answer themselves. Had Russia in 1917 reached a level of development where abundance for all was possible? And did the Russian working-class in 1917 possess a clear understanding of the need for a wageless, moneyless, stateless society?

To sum up, movements for “workers’ management,” “workers’ participation” and “workers’ control” (though their various adherents distinguish very loudly between these three) will probably be used by capitalism, as in Yugoslavia, to give workers the impression that the enterprise they work for in some way belongs to them. If all employees can be drawn into the process of management, and can be given the illusion of an identity of interests between workers and employers, this helps to muffle the trade union struggle and enhance the process of exploitation. This is not what the members of “Solidarity” want, but then neither is the present structure of the steel industry what Labour Leftists wanted. “Workers’ management” is a cul-de-sac, to replace the cul-de-sac of nationalization. Please, don’t take another fifty years to see through this one. . . .

We say that in an epoch of potential Plenty the cry should be, not “workers’ management,” but “To each according to his wants!”

(1) This point is made abundantly clear in Marx’s Wage Labour And Capital, and Engels’ Socialism, Utopian and Scientific, and is frequently stressed throughout Marx’s writings.

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.

The Revolutionary Alternative to Left-Wing Politics

August 30, 2010 3 comments

From Subversion, No. 16 (Spring 1996)

The Left has not failed. And that is one of the greatest disasters ever to befall the working class.

Most people think that the Left is the movement of the working class for socialism (albeit riven by opportunism and muddle-headed interpretations on the part of many in its ranks).

Nothing could be further from the truth.

We in Subversion (and the wider movement of which we are a part) believe that left-wing politics are simply an updated version of the bourgeois democratic politics of the French revolution, supplemented by a state-capitalist economic programme.


In the French revolution, the up and coming capitalist class were confronted not only by the old order, hut also by a large and growing urban plebeian population (the working class in formation, artisans, petty traders and the like), who had their own genuine aspirations for freedom from oppression, however incoherent.

Bourgeois democracy was the device that enabled the capitalist class to disguise their own aspirations for power as the liberation of everyone outside the feudal power structure.

The notion of the People (as though different classes, exploiters and exploited, could be reduced to a single entity) was thus born.

The notion of Equality and the notion of Rights possessed by all presented a fictitious view of society as a mass of individuals who all stood in the same relations to the law completely ignoring the difference between the property owners and those whose labour they exploit.

And, above aIl the notion of the Nation – that the oppressed class should identify with those of their oppressors who live in the same geographical area or speak the same language, and see as alien those of our class who are on the other side of “national borders”.

By means of this imaginary view of society, capitalism was able to dominate the consciousness of the newly forming working class. Bourgeois democracy is the biggest con in history.

Consider also:

As capitalism developed more and more. the material position of the working class forced it to engage in struggle despite its bourgeois consciousness thus enabling this consciousness to be undermined.

The existing capitalist regimes often came to be hated. Thus there was a need for a more radical version of bourgeois democracy with a more specifically working class image. Left wing politics fulfilled this role in the 19th and 20th centuries, first in the form of Social Democracy or Labourism and then in the form of Bolshevism: Both of these variants managed to dress up support for capitalism in working class language, and became major players in the full development of capitalism (this was especially true in Russia. where State Capitalism, introduced by the Bolsheviks, a supposedly working class party, was the only way capitalism could be developed.


At first blush it seems to be about supporting the struggle of the workers. but when you look more closely everything is on the terrain of capitalist politics.
The main features of Leftism are


Such as the Labour Partty in this country and the ANC in South Africa (precisely because its goal is to widen bourgeois democracy – the vote etc ).and support for Parliament. Some “revolutionary” groups who don’t support the Labour Party nevertheless still suppnt participation in parliament – thereby helping in practice to uphold the ideology of bourgeois democracy.


Already referred to above, State Capitalism (a term with various meanings, but here we mean the form of society that developed in Russia and its imitators) collects all property into the hands of the state. And this is a capitalist state, not a “workers’ state” because capitalist property relations still exist – wage labour, money, the market – and of course the workers do not control the state. The state, indeed, confronts the workers as the ‘collective capitalist” extracting surplus value from them for the ruling bureaucrats. who are themselves the “collective bourgeoisie’.

Let us be clear about this the only way capitalism can be dismantled is for the working class to immediately abolish money and the market, and distruibute goods according to need (albeit with scarce goods being rationed for a time if necessary). Those who argue that this cannot be done immediately are in fact arguing for retaining the very core of capitalist social relations – if that is done the revolution is as good as dead.

The idea that state capitalism is not capitalism doesn’t merely justify support for anti-working class dictatorships like Russia, China, Cuba etc., but creates the very real danger of such a society being created in any future revolution.


Left wing groups routinely advocate support for weaker, e.g. ‘third world’, nation states – meaning the governments of nation states, against stronger ones (Iraq in the Gulf War, etc.),- This is described as anti-imperialism as though the victory of the weaker country would do more than slightly alter the ranking of states within the world imperialist pecking order. Imperialism is a historical stage of capitalism and opposing it as opposed to opposing capitalism itself via working class revolution, is meaningless.

The most common form of this “radical” nationalism consists of so-called “national liberation movements”. such as the IRA, who don’t yet have state power. As soon as they do come to power they always crush the working class – that is, of course, the nature of bourgeois state power.

Often the line will be used that, even if one disapproves of nationalism, that nevertheless nations have a right to self-determination, and one must support their rights. A purer example of bourgeois democratic double-talk could not be imagined: Rights are not something that actually exists, but are a bourgeois mystification (see above). The working class should not talk about its rights but about its class interest. Talking about a right to national “self-determination’ (as though a geographical grouping of antagonistic classes can be a ‘self’!) is like saying that workers have a “right” to be slaves if they want to, or a “right” to beat themselves over the head with a hammer if they want to. Anyone who supports the ‘right’ to something anti-working class is actually helping to advocate it. whatever their mealy-mouthed language.

Siding with the working class against all capitalist factions necessitates opposing all forms of nationalism whatsoever. Any wobbling on this will lead the working class to defeat yet again.


Seemingly the most working class activity of all. Trade Unionism is above all a movement to reconcile the workers to capitalism Its stated aim is to get workers the best deal within capitalism, but it’s not even that:

The mass of workers have bourgeois consciousness, but because capitalism forces them to struggle, they can resist despite that consciousness and thereby begin to change that consciousness.

Struggles of the working class are the seeds of revolutionary change. But because Trade Unions are made up of the mass of workers (with bourgeois consciousness) and exist all the time – i.e when there’s no class struggle (and although the day-today life of workers can well be called a struggle, we are of course talking about collective struggle) the said Unions inevitably fail to challenge capitalism, and furthermore become dominated by a clique of bureaucrats who rise above the passive mass of workers. These bureaucrats get their livelihood from the day-to-day existence within capitalism that is Trade Unionism. They are thus materially tied to it. That is why when struggle breaks out, the Union machine sabotages it and stabs workers in the back in the time honoured tradition. This will always be the case – the workers can never seize the unions. The very nature of Trade Unionism produces anti-working class bureaucratic control.

We believe the workers must create new structures, controlled from the bottom up, to run every struggle that occurs, outside and against the Unions, if the struggle is to go forward. Left wing groups support for Trade Unions is just one more way in which they help shackle the working class to capitalism.


This division between a mass of followers and an elite of leaders mirrors the divide in mainstream capitalism (and indeed all forms of class society) between rulers and ruled, and serves well the project of constructing state capitalism, after the future revolution.

None of this means that all workers will come simultaneously to revolutionary ideas, because to begin with only a minority will be revolutionaries, but their task is to argue their case with the rest of their fellow workers as equals.

What the left do however, is to perpetuate the sheep-like mentality workers learn under capitalism and harness it to their aim to be in charge after the revolution. We say that if anyone is in charge, if the working class does not lead itself and consciously build a new society, then it will fare no better than in Russia and China and all the rest.

We believe that all left wing groups, whether Stalinist or Trotskyist (or Maoist or Anarchist or whatever they call themselves) are merely radical capitalist organisations which, if they ever came to power, would erect new state capitalist dictatorships in the name of the very working class they would proceed to crush.

This is not a matter of the subjective intentions of their members, whose sincerity we are not questioning here. but the objective result of their policies.

This is why the Left has not failed Its aim was never more than to save capitalism by disguising it as something it was not -just as the original form of bourgeois democracy did in an earlier age.

In opposition to the Left there exists a political movement, consisting of both groups and individuals, some of whom might call themselves Communists, while some might call themselves Anarchists (the Marxist-Anarchist split is an outdated historical division that bears no relationship to the real class line, which cuts across it), but who all stand united against the fake radicalism of the Left, and for a genuinely communist alternative. We in SUBVERSION area part of this movement.


We believe that, despite the obstacles put in its way by both Right and Left, the working class has the power to destroy capitalism for real, and create a society without classes, without the state, national boundaries, oppression or inequality. A society not based on money or other forms of exchange, but on collective ownership of, and free access to, all society’s goods on the part of the whole of humanity.

This society. which we call Communism or Socialism or Anarchism interchangeably, will be the first truly free society ever to exist.

The social movement that will create this society will grow from the existing struggles of the working class. As part of this process, our class must surmount the barriers put in its way by bourgeois ideology, including left wing ideology. Our task in SUBVERSION is not to be leaders (see above), but to be part of the process of creation of a revolutionary working class movement that will put an end to our world’s long history of oppression and exploitation, and begin the long history of the free, world human community to come.

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