Ways and Means

In this week’s Feedback Danny Lambert agreed with our aim of replacing capitalism with socialism but wanted to know just what we would put in its place. He suggested we might adopt the object of the Socialist Party of Great Britain (SPGB) that was agreed in 1905:

“The establishment of a system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth by and in the interest of the whole community.”

It is similar to the original Clause IV 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 got me thinking and reading up on the early history of our movement. I was drawn to the similarities between then and now. Then the parliamentary system was dominated by two establishment parties, the Conservatives and the Liberals. Alongside the established unions for skilled and semi-skilled workers like engineers, miners and railwaymen there was the growth of new unionism amongst unskilled labourers who operated in the Victorian version of the gig economy – casual and unskilled labourers like dockers, gas workers and female factory workers like the famous Match Girls who went on strike at Bryant and May. Socialist ideas were making a comeback after a long boom that had deflated the revolutionary fervour of the Chartist period.

Important leaders of the new trade union struggles were also the most fervent socialists; people like Eleanor Marx, Annie Besant, Tom Mann, Ben Tillett and Will Thorne. But they were not all united in a single party. The most prominent organisations were: the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) which claimed to be Marxist; the Independent Labour Party (ILP) which was strongly influenced by the Christian socialist tradition; the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) which was established by the TUC to get MPs who represented the working class elected and was ready to work with the Liberals to achieve this; the Socialist Labour Party in Scotland which focused on militant trade union struggle and was hostile to parliamentary politics.

Socialists moved between the new parties depending on the needs of the struggle. Annie Besant managed to be an active member of the reformist Fabian Society and the revolutionary SDF at the same time. Neither she nor the respective organisations saw any contradiction in this arrangement!

Today it is the Labour Party, and not the Liberal Party, that exerts a baleful influence on the socialist movement. The new unionism of the 21st Century is organising Uber drivers, Amazon warehouse staff, zero hours cleaners who work in government departments and luxury hotels. The old unions, particularly in the public sector, are engaged in bitter disputes over wages and conditions that are also about the future of public services in this country.

Now, as then, we have a multitude of small parties. The difference is that socialist ideas which revived under Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party are once more on the retreat. Socialist politics at the beginning of the last century were starting from scratch. Today’s socialists are often striving to recapture what has been lost, rather than trying to build something new.

Questions that were fiercely debated then are still relevant today. Is militant trade unionism on its own enough to defeat capitalism or do we need political organisation as well? Can socialism come through parliament? Is it possible to fight for reforms under capitalism without compromising our revolutionary commitment to socialism? How can we build left unity? Should existing organisations unite along the model of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) and the People’s Alliance of the Left (PAL) or should they seek unity via amalgamation into a single party?

So, thank you Danny for your comment. It sent me back to my books in an effort to better understand the past. The real challenge will be to use that knowledge and understanding to better shape the future.

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