The British Labour Party is obviously one of the greatest political forces of the capitalist world. With its six million and more members, it is by far the largest of social-democratic parties. The twelve million votes cast in its favour at the last General Election were the votes of the majority of the working class—of a working class undivided on religious or ideological grounds, and sociologically the dominant class in an overwhelmingly proletarian nation. The Labour Party is no mere opposition party. It is used to power, although the modalities of that power may seem limited.
Such are the evident indices of the Labour Party’s strength and importance. But inseparably associated with this strength there are less evident weaknesses, and both strength and weakness are aspects of a unique historical and political evolution full of its own characteristic contradictions, too little analysed until now. As a part of its well-known general antipathy to theory, the British Left has been notably averse to thinking critically about itself. The Labour Party did not come into being in response to any theory about what a socialist party should be; it arose empirically, in a quite piece-meal fashion, like so much in British bourgeois society before it. And it rapidly became accepted as a permanent, inevitable feature of that society—a kind of monument about which it was pointless, if not impious, to ask too searching questions. Something of the
Any adequate account of the Labour phenomenon must, naturally, be historical in its orientation. And a historical analysis must bear in mind Gramsci’s stricture to the effect that: ‘the history of a party . . . cannot fail to be the history of a given social class . . . writing the history of a party really means nothing but writing the history of a country from a particular, monographic point of view, throwing one aspect of it into relief.’footnote1 This is perhaps especially true of a party like the Labour Party. Its empirical, undoctrinaire origins, the thoroughly indigenous nature of all its roots, signify a particularly intimate bond with the society that gave birth to it. Like other mass socialist parties, it is essentially a novelty—nothing else than the embryo of a new society altogether—but this element is concealed and qualified in its case by a singularly dense integument tying it to the past. This integument is at once party psychology, and mass psychology, the ideology and customs of Labourism and beyond them the reflexes of the Labour Movement and of the working class as a whole. It is linked to, and in part dependent upon, a specific kind of organization and bureaucratic control. It was the natural, effective instrument of adaptation of a working-class movement to a society which itself—during the whole existence of Labourism—leaned instinctively and whole-heartedly towards the past.
Only from an examination of this matrix as a whole is it possible to define the basic problems of Labourist socialism. This study, naturally, cannot hope to treat such a complex of themes other than summarily—to look for a correct approach to it, by asking questions, rather than by formulating answers. But we must also try to see to what extent the situation of the Labour Party under Harold Wilson is a new one. British society as a whole has begun to change more rapidly and consciously, after a long era of stagnation, generating a multitude of tensions and new contradictions. What new possibilities and dangers confront the Labour Party under these conditions? What new problems are being added to the old ones?
After the defeat of Chartism began the greatest era of prosperity for British capitalism, the 25 years from 1850 until about 1875. Cyclical crises practically disappeared. ‘Shortly before the middle of the century there began everywhere a substantial advance in the standard of living. At first this was due not to rising wages but to falling prices; but later, when prices again rose, wages . . . rose more than enough to meet them . . . Revolts and mass movements gave place to the well-organized but moderate trade unions and co-operative societies of the new order.’footnote2
The epoch of integration had begun. This moderate trade-unionism, whose basic structure and outlook endure to this day, was to become the nucleus of Labourism. Not until 1918 did it turn aside, even nominally, from a general acceptance of the conditions of capitalist society.
While early trade-unionism of the Owenite period had been all-embracing in its organization and idealistic in its philosophy, trade unions after 1850 were fragmentary in structure and set themselves no general ideal greater than that of acceptance by the great Victorian bourgeoisie as ‘respectable’ institutions. Early trade-unionism had tried to organize all grades of workers. After the defeats, in changed economic and psychological conditions—the development of industry, and especially metallurgical industry, was producing wider differences between skilled and unskilled operatives—the trade unions became organizations of the ‘labour aristocracy’. A fundamental aspect of the new unionism was, in the words of the major historians of British trade-unionism, ‘the principle of the protection of the vested interests of the craftsman in his occupation’.footnote3 The Preface to the rules of the most important of the new unions, the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, actually compared the position of the skilled worker to that of the professional man: a qualified doctor, it points cut, is entitled to certain privileges, and to protection by the law against charlatans—why should this not be true of the skilled worker who has gone through his apprenticeship? But since the law does not protect his ‘privileges’, the trade union must do so. On this narrowly corporative basis—directed against the employers, in the first place, but also against the mass of unskilled workers—were built up organizations of great strength and resilience. Indeed, this strength of the new ‘craft unions’ lay in their very limitations, as compared to the older and more ambitious bodies. Their corporativism echoed that of the working class as a whole, showing the same positive and negative aspects. On the one hand, it was a model form of working-class resistance, appreciated as such in many other countries—for instance, by the large delegation of Parisian workers which visited London for the Universal Exhibition of 1862.footnote4 On the other hand, it was a form of integration into the characteristic hierarchies of Victorian society, an assimilative process affecting a vital sector of the proletariat. Politically, the new trade union leaders were committed to Liberalism—that is, to the classical British party of the industrial bourgeoisie, reposing on the twin pillars of Protestantism and Free Trade. Through them, the workers in effect allied themselves with the bourgeoisie against the power of the landlords, expressed in the Conservative Party. But not, as in underdeveloped countries, with a weak bourgeoisie struggling to assert itself against an all-powerful, regressive feudalism! In Britain, the agrarian question had in reality become completely secondary and the aristocracy could only govern in the general interests of the bourgeoisie even when in power—hence, the subordination of the working class to the Liberals was no more than a characteristic piece of mystification. Yet, until 1914 this tactic of diverting the political passions of the masses towards a fight against ‘landed privilege’ was to remain efficacious. David Lloyd George was its last great practitioner.