Geoffrey M. Hodgson
In September 2015 a rank outsider, with minimal support from inside the Parliamentary Party, became Labour Party Leader. But he was elected with the support of almost 60% of the party membership.
Jeremy Corbyn first became a Member of Parliament in 1983 and was frequently in opposition to the leadership of his own party. His elevation to Leader in 2015 was widely regarded as a radical break from Labour’s past, particularly from the era of Tony Blair’s leadership from 1994 to 2007.
In contrast to a widespread view, I argue here that Corbyn’s politics are – in most respects – more mainstream than reported. They are broadly in line with the original Labour Party, from its formation in 1900 (as the Labour Representation Committee) to at least 1945.
By contrast, from the election of the first majority Labour government in 1945 to the resignation of Ed Miliband from the leadership in 2015, Labour adjusted to the realities of gaining and retaining power, and became more moderate in much of its political rhetoric. A large section of the party abandoned its original socialist ideology, in substance if not in name, and these pragmatists dominated Labour during the post-war period. To retain credibility, they tried to alter the meaning of socialism to serve more moderate ends.
Corbyn’s election as leader should be understood – in part – as a rehabilitation of typical Labour doctrines of the 1900-1945 period, and of Labour’s aspiration for socialism as originally defined. Corbyn has Labour’s DNA. But he has recombined Labour’s original DNA with ‘anti-imperialist’ doctrines that became prominent, largely outside Labour, in the 1960s and 1970s.
I first summarise Labour Party ideology in the 1900-1945 period. I then show how Corbyn exhibits these earlier views, but in genetic recombination with an “anti-imperialist” politics of the 1960s and 1970s. I then briefly draw some tentative conclusions from this analysis.
Socialism and the Labour Party
The word socialism first appeared in English in 1827 in the Co-operative Magazine, published in London by followers of Robert Owen. It was used in the Poor Man’s Guardian in 1833, and moved into wider usage thereafter.
For Owen and his followers, socialism meant the abolition of private property. As Owen argued in 1840, ‘virtue and happiness could never be attained’ in ‘any system in which private property was admitted’. He aimed to secure ‘an equality of wealth and rank, by merging all private into public property’.
From the 1830s until the 1950s, socialism was almost universally defined in terms of the abolition of private property and some form of widespread common ownership.
In the Communist Manifesto of 1848, Marx and Engels echoed Owen and others and called for the ‘abolition of private property.’ In 1850 Marx declared: ‘Our concern cannot simply be to modify private property, but to abolish it’. In the Communist Manifesto and elsewhere, he and Engels proclaimed an economic order in which ‘capital is converted into common property, into the property of all members of society.’ They wanted the complete abolition of the ‘free selling and buying’ of commodities.
They welcomed efforts ‘to centralize all instruments of production in the hands of the state’ and looked forward to a time when ‘all production has been concentrated in the hands of a vast association of the whole nation’. Their version of socialism was particularly centralist, but they reflected the views of all socialists in looking for universal common ownership.
Marxism was never a major influence in the British Labour Party. But its founders took on board this same definition of socialism. Socialism was widely understood as the abolition of private ownership and its replacement by some form of common ownership.
Beatrice & Sidney Webb
Fabian socialists such as Sidney and Beatrice Webb had an ultimate vision of a fully planned and consciously controlled socialist economy where all markets and private ownership of the means of production were gradually marginalized to insignificance. They wanted private ownership of the means of production to be ended: it was a ‘perversion’.
They envisaged a massive, complex structure of national, regional and local committees, all involved in decision-making over details of production and distribution. But how would these cope with the huge amounts of information and specialized knowledge in modern complex economies? It was simply assumed that this was relatively easy to sort out in some rational manner.
G D H Cole
Some contemporary Labour Party intellectuals stressed workplace democracy. This was a central theme in the “guild socialism” of G. D. H. Cole and others. Cole – another Fabian – is sometimes described as a ‘libertarian socialist’ and as an advocate of ‘decentralized’ socialism. But he supported the wholesale nationalisation of industry and the abolition of private enterprise.
Cole’s vision of socialism was of an integrated, national system where ‘a single authority is responsible both for the planning of the social production as a whole and for the distribution of the incomes which will be used in buying it.’ Within this ‘single authority’ he also sought devolved worker control. He wanted local autonomy of manufacturing, modelled on the medieval guild. But he was tragically unclear about how the two were to be reconciled.
These theorists ignored the problem of devolving genuine power within a national bureaucracy, without the creation of autonomous private enterprises. A major debate within the Labour Party concerned the desired structure and devolution of power within this national public framework.
Clause Four, Part Four of the Labour Party Constitution reflected a compromise between these different strands of thought. But all were united in their support of wholesale common ownership. Sidney Webb drafted these words and they were adopted by the Labour Party in 1918:
“To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.”
This provided for no exception: all production would be in common ownership and there would be no private sector. Although some Labour Party thinkers began to entertain the possibility of some private enterprise, resolute support for widespread common ownership prevailed.
In 1937, eight years before he became Prime Minister, Clement Attlee wrote of the ‘evils’ of capitalism: their ‘cause is the private ownership of the means of life; the remedy is public ownership.’
Attlee approvingly quoted the words of Bertrand Russell: ‘Socialism means the common ownership of land and capital together with a democratic form of government. … It involves the abolition of all unearned wealth and of all private control over the means of livelihood of the workers’.
After 1945, the position of many leading Labour Party members began to shift. First the realities of gaining and holding on to power – as a majority party for the first time – dramatized the political and practical unfeasibility of abolishing all private enterprise. Some nationalization was achieved, but a large private sector remained.
Second, with the outbreak of the Cold War in 1948 it was more difficult to sustain the naïve, rose-tinted views of the Soviet Union, although as Bill Jones shows in his book The Russia Complex, they were remarkably persistent.
In 1956 C. Anthony Crosland published The Future of Socialism. This underlined Labour’s slow reconciliation with markets, private enterprise and a mixed economy. In 1959 the (West) German Social Democratic Party abandoned the goal of widespread common ownership. In the same year, Hugh Gaitskell tried to get the British Labour Party to follow this lead, but met stiff resistance.
Because of Gaitskell’s failed attempt to change the wording of Clause Four, Corbyn’s mentor Tony Benn switched his allegiance to Harold Wilson. Wilson had been a student of Cole at Oxford University. When he was Prime Minister, Wilson pragmatically retained the clause but tolerated a mixed economy.
In 1995, Tony Blair successfully ended the Labour Party’s longstanding constitutional commitment to far-reaching common ownership. But Benn still wished to retain the original wording and protested: ‘Labour’s heart is being cut out’.
In an interview in 2000, Benn favourably quoted Attlee: ‘If you look around the world, what are the problems? They’re all caused by the private ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange.’
It should be clear that Labour’s commitment to widespread common ownership was uppermost from 1900 to 1945. Subsequently Labour adjusted to the realities of a large-scale complex economy, where it is impossible to gather all information together in some central planning office, or even in some massive computer.
Democratic deliberation over every key decision is even more unfeasible. As Oscar Wilde quipped: socialism is impossible because it would take too many meetings.
In practice, if not in declaration, every leader of the Labour Party from 1955 to 2015 had abandoned the commitment to wholesale common ownership. But as Benn and Corbyn have illustrated so well, it has remained in Labour’s DNA.
A tricky gene transplant might have been possible, but only if Labour had developed a thoroughgoing alternative to its pre-1945 socialism. The closest it came to this was Crosland’s Future of Socialism, which commendably emphasized the goal of diminishing economic inequality, instead of common ownership.
But largely the party fudged the issue, trying to turn the original meaning of socialism (which had prevailed from 1830 to 1950) into something else. Even Blair retained the word socialism in his rhetoric and in his redraft of Clause Four.
Blair promoted ‘social-ism’, which now meant recognizing individuals as socially interdependent. It also signalled social justice, cohesion, and the equal worth of each citizen, with equal opportunities.
Such a doctrine was indistinguishable from the earlier views of radical social liberals, such as T. H. Green and J. A. Hobson. It was a hundred miles away from the collectivism of Owen, Cole or the Webbs. But (with or without the hyphen) the word socialism was retained.
Blair favoured the tradition of ‘ethical socialism’ naming proponents such as John Macmurray and R. H. Tawney. But he wrongly stated that these socialists had been opposed to common ownership. On the contrary, their original devotion to this goal was no less than that of Owenism or Marxism, although Tawney and others later adjusted their views.
Instead of tackling the problem of its collectivist DNA more explicitly and resolutely, Labour tried to change the meaning of socialism and even rewrote parts of its own history. It is unsurprising that the old DNA survived.
Genetic Recombination with ‘Anti-Imperialism’
The late 1960s and early 1970s were years of great political convulsion. At the centre was opposition to the War in Vietnam. Previously most hard-left groups – including the forerunner of today’s Socialist Workers Party – were ‘entryists’ in the Labour Party. Before 1968 it was the only place to be. But the Vietnam War changed all that.
As British Prime Minister, Wilson declared government support for the military actions of the United States in Vietnam, but astutely avoided sending British troops. By 1968 the Labour Party conference had come out against the war. Wilson personally bore the brunt of the opposition. Thousands of activists left the Labour Party. Most of the hard-left sects followed them.
From 1920 to 1968 the main socialist party outside Labour was the Communist Party of Great Britain. After 1968 they were competing in this narrow space with several feuding and splintering Trotskyist groups.
It was Lenin, not Marx, who had made ‘anti-imperialism’ and national liberation a key motif of his Marxism. He was followed in this respect by Trotsky.
Hence Leninism once again became visible on the far left. But this time it did not necessarily mean loyalty to the Soviet Union: it mean ‘solidarity with anti-imperialist struggles’ in Cuba, Vietnam, Palestine and elsewhere.
Corbyn was 19 years old in 1968. Politically, these were his formative years. Unlike many others he remained in the Labour Party, partly attracted by the ideas and charisma of Benn, who narrowly lost the contest for deputy leadership against Dennis Healey in 1981. Corbyn’s unwavering views, his election as an MP in 1983 and his political survival until his triumphant bid for leadership in 2015, has spliced Leninist genes alongside those of the old Owenite collectivism.
Blair’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the financial crash of 2008 had helped to turn the Labour membership against Blairism, in all its forms and dilutions. As evidence of the Freudian defence mechanism of regression as a response to severe stress, Labour reverted to an earlier stage of development, adopting its infant profile of collectivism and state control.
Labour’s ‘Russia complex’ also re-emerged. We can find sympathy with a post-Soviet Russia, in disputes over the Ukraine and the expansion of NATO.
Labour’s enduring successes in 1945-51, 1964-1970, 1974-1979 and 1997-2010 were great liberal reforms and extensions of social justice, from the National Health Service to the minimum wage. They did not bring a mythical socialist future any closer. Labour advanced despite, not because of, its original socialism.
Recent developments within the Labour Party – including the resurgence of its collectivist past – make a parliamentary majority in 2020 impossible, unless some unforeseen catastrophe hits the Conservative Party. A recent report from within the Labour Party states that unless radical action is taken, Labour’s electoral prospects ‘remain very poor’.
Any way we look, the outlook is bleak. The election of Corbyn to Labour Party Leader shows that organizations have something similar to the enduring DNA of biological organisms. As business practitioners know well, changing organizational DNA is notoriously difficult.
Later posts on this New Politics blog will address this problem and try to formulate some solutions. But we should not underestimate the scale of the task ahead. One of the first jobs for the Left is to reconsider where it has come from, and what kind of future it wishes to build. Nothing should be taken for granted.
But this ‘DNA’ analysis shows that the status of the Labour Party in Britain as the leader of a renewed and viable Left is now in doubt.
23 May 2016
Attlee, Clement R. (1937) The Labour Party in Perspective (London: Gollancz).
Blair, Tony (1994) Socialism, Fabian Pamphlet 565 (London: Fabian Society).
Cole, George D. H. (1920) Guild Socialism Re-Stated (London: Parsons).
Crosland, C. Anthony R. (1956) The Future of Socialism (London: Jonathan Cape).
Hodgson, Geoffrey M. (1999) Economics and Utopia: Why the Learning Economy is not the End of History (London and New York: Routledge).
Jones, Bill (1977) The Russia Complex: The British Labour Party and the Soviet Union (Manchester: University of Manchester Press).
Marx, Karl (1973) The Revolutions of 1848: Political Writings – Volume 1 (Harmondsworth: Penguin).
Owen, Robert (1991) A New View of Society and Other Writings (Harmondsworth: Penguin).
Webb, Sidney J. and Webb, Beatrice (1920) A Constitution for the Socialist Commonwealth of Great Britain (London: Longmans Green).