British politics today no longer lags behind economics. Hitherto, the hundred-year decline of British capitalism’s relative strength in the world economy, so often analysed, so rarely even temporarily checked, has been accompanied by a relative stability of the country’s political system.footnote1 Of the major imperialist powers, only two have experienced such basic institutional resilience over such a time-span: the United States and Britain. But they have represented not—as vulgar-liberal ideology would have it—comparable exemplars of some quintessentially Anglo-Saxon bourgeois-democratic preservative virtue, but rather opposite poles. At one extreme, after the bloody achievement of its final unification in 1861–5, already equipped during its emergence as an independent nation with relatively advanced political institutions, us political stability went together with—and was consolidated by—the country’s rise to economic and political supremacy in the capitalist world—a supremacy which reached its apogee in the three decades after World War II. At the other extreme, Britain rose—through its commercial and military-colonial expansion of the eighteenth century and its industrial revolution of 1780–1850—to a pre-eminent position in the mid 19th century that was by some (economic) criteria even greater than the later us hegemony, without any major modification of what was already by then in many respects (from its monarchy to its educational hierarchy) a notably antiquated political order. Since that time, as a hundred years of living off its economic fat has progressively disclosed the scrawny frame beneath John Bull’s corpulent persona, what once seemed a merely superficial archaism, with its own more-than-compensatory Burkean strengths, has been revealed as a morbid condition.

Now, as the malady has assumed a galloping momentum, some of those elements traditionally cherished as immutable principles of Britain’s unwritten constitution—the ‘two-party system’, the first-past-the-post electoral arrangements, the hereditary second chamberfootnote2 (with those newcomers to the British way of life so proudly added by the post-war Labour government, the welfare state and near-full male employmentfootnote3)—are suddenly turning out to be dispensable. The Thatcherite onslaught on the historic gains and the real living standards of the working class, the polarization taking place in the labour movement, and the meteoric initial success of the sdp-Liberal Alliance, can be seen as direct reflections at the political level of the multi-faceted crisis now gripping the British social formation as a whole, and whose most dramatic symptoms have been rampant de-industrialization, mass unemployment especially of youth, last summer’s ghetto explosions and twelve years of perspective-less military engagement in Northern Ireland.

That the British crisis is not a conjunctural one hardly needs re-emphasis for readers of New Left Review; Tom Nairn’s cogent essay in a recent issue rests on an analysis which has been developed over almost twenty years.footnote4 Yet that this analysis has not become the commonsense even of British Marxists, let alone more generally on the left, was graphically shown by two recent articles in the Review focusing on developments in the Labour Party. Despite their conflicting standpoints, the authors, Michael Rustinfootnote5 and David Coates,footnote6 share a common and in our view quite mistaken implicit premiss that the familiar landscape of British party politics is still there outside the window. Rustin, for all the valuable points he makes about the sometimes inadequately elaborated and over-narrow proposals of the Labour left for democratizing the party, entirely underestimates the dramatic impingement of the crisis upon the latter. He argues in favour of the ‘broad’ party as presently constituted—indeed a still broader one—just when it looks increasingly apparent that the old coalition can no longer hold together. Coates, for his part, eloquently restates the classical Marxist critique of reformism and the particular form it takes in the Labour Party, and notably on its left today, as if this settles the question of how Marxists should relate to it.footnote7

In the present article, after a brief outline of the political coordinates of the crisis, we will concentrate on developing a counter-thesis to Coates’s arguments. For although we agree entirely with most of what he has to say about labourism, the record of successive Labour governments and the weaknesses of the Alternative Economic Strategy, we profoundly disagree with the conclusion he so summarily draws, that serious socialists should riot join the Labour Party, since that would be ‘to jeopardize that degree of distance from labourism whose maintenance is vital if the integrity of the socialist project is to be protected in the minds of its adherents from contamination with the retreats perpetrated in its name by Labour politicians in power’, and ‘to be sucked into the resolution-passing and in-fighting that dominates political activity within the Labour machine’ . . . ‘to lose the capacity to act as a point of reference and as a source of fraternal criticism, towards which sections of the Labour left can turn as the problems of the aes become all too clear in practice’. What is needed, rather, Coates argues, is to build a new unity of the Left outside the Labour Party.footnote8 In our view, this is a standpoint which fails to grasp the real stakes involved at the present stage of the British political crisis, and specifically in the polarization now under way in the Labour Party; which does not make any adequate balance-sheet of the experience of revolutionary organizations in capitalist Western Europe since 1968, seeking to relate this to the more general problem of how one may convincingly envisage the formation of a mass socialist consciousness in an advanced capitalist country today; and which does not properly identify the key dangers for the working class or the key tasks for socialists in the present situation. We would argue that there can be no non-ephemeral capitalist resolution of the current crisis without a major defeat and subordination of the organized working class as a whole. That the polarization taking place within the Labour Party cannot—as occurred with earlier schisms—be papered over by a simple formula of uniting to defeat the Tories. That while it could presage a fatal decline, it does also open up the possibility for the first time in this country of a mass socialist party. That though this could only be a left-reformist or at best centristfootnote9 formation, its appearance would represent a significant advance for the working class and the Left as a whole. And that participation in this process, and fighting for left policies alongside other left or leftward-moving forces, both responds to the present needs of the working class and offers the best perspective for assisting the future development of a renewed mass socialist consciousness, a necessary prerequisite if we are ever to get rid of capitalism.

The 1979 electoral victory of the Conservatives marked a turning-point in post-war British politics (even though it would be wrong to underestimate the extent to which Thatcherite policies were able to build on and extend moves which had already been initiated in the last years of the preceding Labour government). For the first time since the 1943–8 construction of the welfare state, there was now an explicit across-the-board repudiation of the shared Keynesian premisses of successive Conservative and Labour governments, in the name of free-market principles. A revitalized ideology of unashamed capitalist entrepreneurialism championed the aspirations of the economic individual (and family) against the constraints imposed by social interests organized through the State. Public-spending cuts pioneered by Labour were to be greatly intensified; private education, health, housing, etc. privileged and their virtues extolled; the power of the unions curbed.footnote10 Over two million trade-unionists voted for this programme, in what was to say the least a massive indictment of the policies followed under Wilson and Callaghan. The hundreds of thousands of industrial workers who abandoned their traditional class allegiances and voted Tory did so because they were deeply disaffected by the performance of successive Labour governments. Their votes gave the new administration the confidence that it could proceed along its chosen path uninhibited by the likelihood of large-scale industrial action on an even minimally political basis. And they gave the lie to the conventional wisdom of the Labour right that the secret of electoral success is occupation of the ‘middle ground’; for no one could have striven harder to do that than Callaghan, Healey and Foot in 1979, while Thatcher’s appeal was frankly radical, extreme, repudiating not merely Labour’s policies and record but also those of her Tory predecessors (in stark contrast to the obstinate defence of the Wilson/Callaghan years by the present Labour leadership—a defence motivated primarily by the needs of the inner-party struggle against the left, but hardly a recipe for future electoral success, as Tony Benn has frequently pointed out).footnote11

There can be little doubt that the present government has in two years succeeded in inflicting a number of significant defeats on the working class. De facto acceptance by the trade unions of over three million unemployed (by some calculations in reality nearer four), massive cuts in social expenditure (with consequent job losses in addition to their impact on those most in need), numerous factory closures (many in the most highly unionized sectors of industry), and reduction of the work-force in the nationally-owned British Steel Corporation from 184,600 to 110,000 (with more to go) since September 1979, would have seemed inconceivable in the early seventies. Thatcher’s approach differs from that adopted by Healey as Labour chancellor in 1976, not simply because she has been prepared to pursue the ruthless logic of her economic convictions and push on regardless of consequences which have become increasingly unpalatable even to large sectors of her own class and party, but above all in the respective ways in which each obtained the acquiescence, albeit passive, of major sections of the organized working class. Labour operated through the medium of the trade-union bureaucracy, doing nothing that would weaken the latter’s apparatuses or their grip on their memberships.footnote12 Thatcher has largely abandoned this corporate approach. In her first year in office, she in effect appealed directly to workers above the heads of their union leaders, a ‘rank-and-file’ approach which secured some dividends in South Wales, and again among car workers. Since then, she has identified most strongly with the tactics of employers such as British Leyland under Michael Edwardes, who have repeatedly provoked trials of strength with their work-force, blackmailing them with the threat of redundancy and consistently seeking to bypass their shop stewards and union officials.footnote13 Unemployment and the political passivity of most union leaderships have combined to demoralize important sectors of the organized working class even further than they had been by the Callaghan years; the victory of the right wing in the auew, more complete than anyone would have predicted a few years ago, has been emblematic of this process. With the massive rise in unemployment, but also perhaps in response to the intensity of anti-union propaganda in recent years, overall union membership has begun to dip significantly from its all-time high in 1980.footnote14 And yet, when all this has been said, the fact is that no decisive defeat has been inflicted on the organized working class as a whole, in the clear and durable manner required for a capitalist resolution of the crisis. The government has not even secured a really major demonstrative victory of the kind inflicted last year on fiat workers in Turin. Real take-home pay for those in employment did not fall as intended in 1979–80, indeed has not fared nearly as badly under the present Conservative government as in 1975–7 under Labour.footnote15

If Thatcher had been able to restrict her offensive to dividing the working class and weakening the unions, she might have been universally applauded by her own party. However, partly because of the presence within her cabinet of powerful forces convinced of the dangers inherent in any policy that might provoke a politicization of the unions along class lines, partly perhaps fearing a repetition of the confrontation that had brought down her Tory predecessor Heath (whose electoral defeat was preluded by his discomfiture in the 1974 Miners’ Strike), she did not choose the path of direct challenge to organized labour, shrinking from a determined legislative assault and entrusting the employment portfolio for two years to the soft-line James Prior. At the same time, her application of monetarist nostrums has led not just to unemployment levels unprecedented since the thirties and in some areas surpassing even those,footnote16 but also to a sharp and largely unintended intensification of the process of de-industrialization which has long been under way in the erstwhile heartlands of industrial Britain. What was seen as necessary surgery to cut away dead or fatally wasted tissue has led to severe damage to the whole organism: instead of just unviable firms being eliminated there have been hard times for almost all, small or large, obsolescent or technologically innovative. The result, predictably, has been vociferous complaints from the employers’ federation cbi, growing divisions within the Conservative Party and plummeting popular support. Moreover, it has not just been a question of public discontent being registered in opinion polls: the wave of urban rebellions which shook British cities in the summer of 1981 were sparked off by unemployed black youths, joined by many whites, who refused passively to accept their weekly diet of the dole queue, racist violence and institutionalized police harassment. All of these conditions had existed under Labour, but the Thatcherite offensive had reinforced and stimulated the most reactionary reflexes of revanchist elements within the state apparatus and society in general.