Sunday, 29 December 2019

From my mother's bookshelves

One of the advantages of having as parents as old as I had is that they still retained memories of the Labour Movement before the post-war upswing. 

Today, when Blairite pro-capitalist politicians still dominate the Parliamentary Labour Party, it's useful to look back in history and remember that, yes, while the Labour Party was always a "broad church", that breadth was across a range of generally socialist ideas.

Blair attempted to eradicate Labour's genuine socialist traditions and succeeded in removing the clearly socialist clause from the Labour Party constitution. This clause had remained in place since 1918 and set out a clear commitment to the "common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange". Such a commitment to public ownership was a key part of the 1945 Labour Party election manifesto which resulted in a landslide victory.

My mother, returning from being stationed as a radar operator in the WAAF, was one of the many ex-service personnel who were determined to see an end to pre-war poverty and to build a socialist Britain. The discussions were about what exactly that 'socialism' should look like, and were far to the left of the discussions taking place in today's Labour Party. 

The Communist Party and Independent Labour Party also influenced those debates, including, I believe, those my mother was involved in as a student at King's College London (although still living in Fulham where she grew up). Some of her old books confirm that concealed history - history which needs to be rediscovered if we are to build the mass workers' party that is so needed today:

The Communist Manifesto - issued by the Labour Party in 1948

Amongst her old books is one that very clearly shows the influence of Marxism on the Labour Party at that time. This is a special edition of the Communist Manifesto produced in 1948 to mark the centenary of its first publication. The front dustsheet states boldly that "The Labour Party regards this statement of Marx and Engels as one of the greatest documents in socialist history". It is accompanied by both a foreword comparing the actions of the 1945 Labour Government with the programme in the Communist manifesto and a further introduction by Harold Laski, then a member of the Labour Party NEC and, from 1945-46, had been the Labour Party's chairperson.

The "Foreword by the Labour Party" includes the following: 

"In presenting this centenary volume of the Communist Manifesto, with the valuable Historical Introduction by Professor Laski, the Labour Party acknowledges its indebtedness to Marx and Engels as two of the men who have been the inspiration of the whole working-class movement.

The British Labour Party has its roots in the history of Britain. The Levellers, Chartists, Christian Socialists, the Fabians and many other bodies, all made their contributions, and the British Trade Unions made it possible to carry theory into practice. John Ball, Robert Owen, William Morris, Keir Hardie, John Burns, Sidney Webb, and many more British men and women have played outstanding parts in the development of socialist thought and organisation. But British socialists have never isolated themselves from their fellows on the continent of Europe. Our own ideas have been different from those of continental socialism which stemmed more directly from Marx, but we, too, have been influenced in a hundred ways by European thinkers and fighters, and. above all, by the authors of the Manifesto.

Britain played a large part in the lives and work of both Marx and Engels. Marx spent most of his adult life here and is buried in Highgate cemetery. Engels was a child of Manchester, the very symbol of capitalist industrialism. When they wrote of bourgeois exploitation they were drawing mainly on English experience.

The authors were the first to admit that principles must be applied in the light of existing conditions, but even the detailed programme they put forward is of great interest to us. Abolition of private property in land has long been a demand of the Labour movement. A heavy progressive income tax is being enforced by the present Labour Government as a means of achieving social justice. We have gone far towards abolition of the right of inheritance by our heavy death duties. Centralisation of credit in the hands of the State is partially attained in the Bank of England Act and other measures. We have largely nationalised the means of communication while extending public ownership of the factories and instruments of production. We have declared the equal obligation of all to work. We are engaged in redressing the balance between town and country, between industry and agriculture. Finally, we have largely established free education for all children in publicly-owned schools. Who, remembering that these were demands of the Manifesto, can doubt our common inspiration?

Harold Laski's introduction finishes with this rousing call for Labour, "as a Socialist party, and as a Government ... to build the foundations of a socialist society":

"The British Labour Party won a notable electoral victory at the close of the second world war. It has thus embarked upon the tremendous task of beginning to build the foundations of a socialist society in Great Britain in a period when, a large part of Europe having been devastated by war and the resources of the victorious powers, like Great Britain itself, drained almost to breaking-point, its task, both as a Socialist Party, and as a Government, is to ask for the continuance of great sacrifices from a people fatigued by the immense effort of war. To keep its authority, as Mr. Attlee himself has said,' "the Labour programme must be carried out with the utmost vigour and resolution. To delay dealing with essentials would be fatal. To show irresolution or cowardice would be to invite defeat. A Labour Government should make it quite plain that it will suffer nothing to hinder it in carrying out the popular will. In all great enterprises it is the first steps that are difficult, and it is the way in which these are taken that makes the difference between success and failure."

It is not, I think, merely patriotic emotion that makes British socialists feel that here, as nowhere else, the truth of their principles will be tested. It was in Great Britain that capitalist society first came to full maturity in the generation subsequent to the Napoleonic Wars. It was largely from the observation and analysis of that maturity that Marxism became the outstanding philosophic expression of socialist principles and methods; and it was largely from British socialist writers, and the early British socialist movement, alike on its political and on its trade union side, that Marx and Engels moved to the understanding that men make their history by their power, through their grasp of the forces which make it move, to give a conscious direction to that movement.

Mr. Attlee has never been himself a Marxist: but there is not a word in the sentences of his that I have quoted which could not have been eagerly accepted by the authors of the Communist Manifesto; and they would, I think, have inferred from them that in the degree to which the first Labour Government with a majority puts the spirit of those phrases into operation, it would fulfil the great objectives for which it was formed. By unbreakable loyalty to its own principles it could lead its own people, even in the hour of crisis, to cast off its chains. A British working class that had achieved its own emancipation could build that working-class unity everywhere out of which the new world will finally be won."

Laski's introduction makes a whole number of other points but this section is interesting in its critical approach to the twists and turns of the Communist Party (unlike the SLF pamphlet below):

"Lenin himself had as early as 1921 to warn Communist parties outside Russia against what he called "the infantile malady of Left Wing Communism" - a malady which, in its essence, consisted of an effort on the part of nascent Communist Parties to repeat in their birth-pangs all the mistakes against which he himself had been fighting for almost a generation before 1917.

But the more unhappy results were deeper. The working-class movement was divided in most of the major countries between Communists and Social Democrats. Their hatred for one another became far more important to each than their antagonism to the common capitalist enemy. Communists formed separate political parties, even separate trade unions. They became so insistent that social democracy was a method of safeguarding capitalism against the workers that there was a period when they followed Moscow in proclaiming that social democrats were, in fact, social fascists.

Almost down to the very advent of Hitler to power, they were ready to believe that his government was the necessary prelude to victory; they would be the residuary legatees of his inevitably rapid overthrow. When the grave error of this policy was perceived, they at once became the ardent advocates of the united front and saw no reason in the world why men whom the day before, as it were, they had been denouncing as "lacqueys of capitalism," or "betrayers of the working class," should not at once agree to admit them to the ranks of a party they had consistently announced they intended to destroy. When the "United Front" did not succeed, and Hitler, who seemed to have considerable support among capitalists in all countries, grew ever more dangerous, above all as a crusader against Soviet Russia, they accepted from Moscow the idea of the "Popular Front," in which Communists would join with any party, no matter what its outlook, so long as it was hostile to Fascism in all its forms. When, roughly by the time of Munich, it was clear that the main capitalist powers had no objection to the expansion of Hitler and Mussolini, provided that their own "vital interests" were not touched - interests which they did not regard as including the integrity of Soviet Russia - the rulers of Russia, without knowledge of Communist parties abroad, proceeded to make a treaty of friendship with Hitlerite Germany which was actually signed by Ribbentrop in Moscow one week before the outbreak of the second World War.

What is nothing less than fantastic is the intellectual gyrations performed by Communist Parties in Western Europe in the period between the beginning of hostilities on September 1st, 1939, and the German attack on Soviet Russia on June 22nd, 1941. They had been so long instructed that Hitler was the enemy of the working class everywhere, the supreme expression of capitalist reaction, that, for the first month of the war, they drew the natural inference that, as the vanguard of the working-class forces, they must take the lead in crusading for his overthrow. Their leaders, therefore, urged on the Communist rank and file the folly, as one of them put it, of merely "mouthing revolutionary phrases"; the urgent thing was to fight with all their strength against the "noxious beast." But they had forgotten the Russo-German pact, and the anxiety of the Soviet leaders not to be involved in what would certainly be a destructive, and might possibly be a fatal conflict. From October 7th, 1939, therefore, their whole policy changed. What had been preached as an anti-fascist crusade became a typical "imperialist" war such as was characteristic of capitalist states. It must be ended as soon as possible; there was every reason to come to terms with Hitler.

For nearly two years in Great Britain, the Communist Party conducted an anti-war agitation, which included denunciation of the Labour Party as "war-mongers" for entering Mr. Churchill's cabinet, an insistence that the responsibility for the war lay on the shoulders of Great Britain which was guilty of aggression against HitIerite Germany, the encouragement of sabotage in the armament factories, and the use of the manifold disasters suffered by Great Britain after the fall of France, to insist that the prolongation of the war would destroy the working class. Then came the German attack on Russia; and, over-night, the war was transformed from an imperialist war into a crusade for freedom. There was no limit to the intensity of the national effort which the Churchill government was entitled to exact, and there could be no question of peace until Hitlerite Germany had been broken in pieces. No one has ever questioned the devotion and heroism of Communist parties everywhere, above all in the countries occupied by the Fascist enemy, once Russia had entered the war. What is startling is the contrast between this and their willingness to come to terms with Hitler before his attack on Russia".

Why Socialism - Student Labour Federation (1946)

My mother also kept a copy of a pamphlet called 'Why Socialism?" produced by the Student Labour Federation (SLF) in 1946. Until 1940, as the University Labour Federation, this had been a socialist society affiliated to the Labour Party, but which had also allowed CP members into membership as well. The SLF's President was at that time, I understand, DN Pritt, the MP for Hammersmith North, who had been overwhelmingly re-elected in 1945, despite standing as an independent labour candidate after being expelled from the Labour Party in 1940. He had been a member of the Socialist League within the Labour Party, alongside other MPs like Nye Bevan, Stafford Cripps, Ellen Wilkinson, Michael Foot and Harold Laski (see above). Pritt regrettably became an uncritical supporter of Stalinism.

While uncritical of the Soviet Union, the pamphlet is also interesting for making criticisms of the newly-elected Labour Government from the Left:


The Conservatives, in Parliament and in their papers, make a great song and dance about the Labour Government's measures of nationalisation and proclaim that the stranglehold of socialism is already destroying the values and advantages of undiluted freedom. We must, of course, take most of this talk with a pinch of salt. In the present world situation even a Tory government would have to retain many of the" controls" about which they grow so indignant. Few industrialists are honestly opposed, for instance, to the nationalisation of the mines, for an efficient mining industry is as much in their interest as anybody's. All the same, when we have cut the cant out of the Tory arguments, a real question remains: is the Labour Government's nationalisation policy socialism? Should a socialist support it? The answers are respectively No and Yes.

Nationalisation of a particular industry, even when carried through fully and consistently, is not socialism, though it may certainly be a step in the socialist direction. The essential point about a socialist society, as we have seen, is that it is a classless society. Power has been taken out of the hands of a ruling class and is held by the people as a whole. The means of production have been taken out of the hands of the capitalists and put into the hands of the workers. Now unless all (or at least a very great majority) of industry is under popular control, the owning class remains. It may be weakened but it is still there and in probability it still keeps its grip on some pretty important industries, notably the newspaper industry, which is one of its greatest weapons. Moreover "nationalisation " can have a good many meanings, and from the experience of the first year of the Labour Government it is clear that the Government's interpretation of it is not a radical one.

However admirable, this policy is not socialism, and socialists will judge it by whether more radical steps could or could not be applied to the industries and gain the people's support. Classes are not being abolished. The ruling class may, indeed, suffer a considerable loss of power and profit. In a nationalised industry the capitalist is no longer his own master. But, when one really comes to take stock, neither has he entirely forfeited his privileges. Quite apart from his compensation which is, from any moral standard, generous, he maintains a very considerable " say" in the industry; if he doesn't personally sit on one of the Boards, he at least has the consolation of knowing that one of his friends does and will continue to fight for his interests. Moreover, if only a few industries are to be nationalised, there is nothing to prevent the "nationalised" capitalist from transferring his unfettered activities to an unfettered industry, an industry in which the free virtues of profit and investment remain relatively untouched. And so the capitalist class remains, weakened it is true, yet nevertheless quite comfortable in its newly-adapted circumstances, in no serious immediate danger of having to work for its living.

This situation is unsatisfactory, not merely because it leaves the capitalist class in essential control of the country's economy, but also because it does not give the worker the great advantages of socialism. The nationalised industry may be more efficient than it had been under private ownership, but the worker has scarcely gained at all; in fact there is the real danger that he may have merely exchanged one boss for another. Socialism means workers' control. It doesn't mean that technicians and managers, experts and planning committees have no place; but it does mean that fundamentally it is the men and women who do the work who must benefit by the fruits of their labour ...

A socialist will therefore support nationalisation, but he will not be content until it has been developed and extended into a real socialist plan for the whole nation.


Socialists do not believe that socialism will be achieved out of the blue or through the honest conviction of a number of enlightened intellectuals. They believe that socialism can come only through the mass effort and organisation of the working- class. For although a number of individuals may consciously and heroically decide to devote their lives selflessly to a cause, the great majority of people will act in general according to their own interests as they conceive them; and the great point about socialism is that it is completely and uncompromisingly in the interests of the working class.

Socialists do not idealise the working class. They do not say that all capitalists are bad and all workers are good. But they do say very emphatically that the capitalist class, because it is a capitalist class - small, exclusive and in conflict with the interests of the majority of the people - is incapable of solving the world problems of today, whereas the working-class can solve them.

Workers are not saints; but they are the people who fight for socialism, and build their organisations for this purpose. In Britain the Labour Movement is the organised expression of the working-class. For a number of historical reasons the British Labour Movement is more closely knit and more united than almost any other working-class movement in the world. The" political wing" (that is to say, in the first place the Labour Party itself), the "industrial wing" (the Trade Unions) and the Co-operative Movement, are all closely associated and form a united movement which can have tremendous power and influence. It is through the Labour Movement that socialism will be built in Britain.

For many years socialism has been the declared aim of almost every section of the Labour Movement. The programme on which the Labour Government was elected says, "The Labour Party's ultimate aim at home is the establishment of the Socialist Commonwealth of Britain-free, democratic, efficient, progressive, public-spirited, its material resources organised in the service of the British people."

Therefore one might assume that the Labour Government is a socialist government and that if it has not yet introduced a socialist society in England that is simply because there has not yet been time.

This, however, is not quite the whole story. No sensible person wants to attack or embarrass the Labour Government. Labour's victory in July, 1945, is one of the great landmarks in the history of the British people. Yet at the same time it must be observed that many of the leaders of the Labour Party in the Government are not carrying out the accepted policy of the Movement.


This is particularly true in regard to foreign policy. It is clear that a socialist has not the same conception of "national interests" as a Tory imperialist. A socialist sees as the root cause of international conflict the capitalist system with its unending trade rivalries, its exploitation of the backward peoples and its maintenance of oppressive social systems. A socialist foreign policy must quite consciously be directed in support of the popular anti-imperialist forces of the world and against the reactionary war-making forces. ...

Socialists therefore loyally support the Labour Government; but do not support it with their eyes closed. In these critical days no socialist dare hesitate to criticise the government or any of the Labour leaders, if their policy should not be directed in the interests of the people. The Labour Movement is not, any more than any other human institution, incapable of error. It has had its Ramsay MacDonalds and Jimmy Thomases as well as its Keir Hardies and Beatrice Webbs, and it may have them again. Every socialist knows that it is through the Labour Movement alone that a socialist Britain will be built, and he knows too that it is only by continuous hard work, vigilance and self-criticism that the Labour Movement will succeed in its aim.

The pamphlet also emphasises the importance of the organised working-class - a fact that is also worth re-emphasising today:


"History shows us that forms and organisations of society are not sacred and eternal; that they are, indeed, thrown up by the necessities of the time and are in a constant state of change and development. Capitalism came about, not because a number of people thought that it might be a good thing; but because the hitherto prevailing social order-feudalism - was unable to adapt itself to the changing needs of the time and therefore had to be replaced ...


And so, just as capitalism - a higher stage of civilisation - swept away and replaced feudalism, so must socialism replace capitalism. For socialism alone is capable of solving the problems which capitalism has thrown up and of turning to good use the discoveries, inventions and advances which were made under capitalism.

And just as it was the commercial and industrial middle class which led the way forward from the feudal society which frustrated their hopes and needs, so is it the working-class which will lead the way forward from our decadent capitalist society.

The working-class, the great majority of the people, has everything to gain and nothing to lose by the destruction of capitalism. That is why it is to the Labour Movement, the organised working-class, that socialists look for the advance to a more satisfactory society. Not all socialists are born into the working-class; members of every class are touched by the breakdown of capitalist society and see in socialism the solution. But only the working-class is strong enough to accomplish the tremendous task of changing the world, and it is by organised activity as allies of the working-class that middle-class people can assist in the struggle for socialism. This is something which should never be forgotten. The middle-class intellectuals may feel all the frustration of the present decay; the theoreticians may write blue-prints on the New Society; the young poet may write satire at the expense of the Tories; but only in so far as they join in with the working people will they make any effective contribution to the socialist cause".

Marxists of that time would not have agreed with every word of these two pamphlets - and would have had their own criticisms of both the Labour leadership and the policies advocated by supporters of the Communist Party. However, what is clear is that the debates across the Movement were openly about how to build a socialist future. That is the debate that must be returned to openly today

Friday, 22 November 2019

The Chinese Revolution of 1944-49 (1980)

The following article was produced from an edited transcript of a speech given by Peter Taaffe at a Marxist education school in London in 1980. In 1982, it was published in Supplement No.8 to Inqaba ya Basebenzi, journal of the Marxist Workers' Tendency of the African National Congress, and also in a Militant pamphlet, 'China - the tradition of struggle', in 1989.

I have copied the full speech, taken directly from the original cassette tape recording, onto YouTube here.

The article is posted below:

It is impossible to understand the Chinese Revolution of 1944-49 without charting, at least in broad outline, the events which followed the defeat of the revolution of 1925-27. 

That earlier revolution had a proletarian character, along the lines of the Russian Revolution, whereas there was an entirely different relationship of class forces in the revolution of 1944-49. Yet in a certain sense - and it might seem a paradox - the revolution of 1944-49 was an echo of the movement of 1925-27.

What were the consequences for the Chinese people of the defeat of the revolution of 1925-27? Politically it meant the establishment of a ruthless military dictatorship that suppressed all the democratic rights of the working people, and crushed the movement of the workers and peasants.
This regime murdered at least 35 000 Communist Party members in 1927, and altogether about 50 000 people in the course of that year in the cities alone. By 1929, as a minimum estimate, 150 000 people had perished as a direct result of the repression carried out by the Kuomintang regime.
All the democratic rights - the right to strike, freedom of assembly, the right to vote - were eliminated by this regime under Chiang Kai-shek. While utterly ruthless in relation to the smallest movement of the workers and peasants, the regime at the same time was completely impotent in the face of the encroachments of imperialism on China.
In particular Japanese imperialism moved in during the period that followed the events of 1925-27 to carve out a more favourable position for itself in terms of raw materials and markets. This was necessary to satisfy the requirements of its growing manufacturing industry.
It was not at all accidental that Japanese imperialism was to the fore in the conquest and dismemberment of China. Japanese capitalism does not have any indigenous raw materials, and hungrily looked towards China's reserves of coal, oil, etc.
Also, Japanese industry has always been heavily dependent on export markets. During the world depression of 1929-33 Japan's exports of manufactured goods went down by two-thirds; half her factories were idle; and the importance of the Asian mainland as a market became crucial.
The Japanese imperialists, of course, were not alone in preying upon China. American, British and French imperialism likewise seized the opportunity that was presented by the weakness of China in the period following 1925-27 to extend their existing spheres of influence.
Japanese imperialism virtually conquered Manchuria in a number of campaigns between 1931 and 1935, establishing the stooge Manchukuo regime. British and American imperialism joined in the dismemberment of China.
In this situation, when the national oppression of the Chinese people-as well as their national indignation against imperialism-grew tremendously, Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang regime were utterly incapable of opposing the imperialist powers. In fact, Chiang Kai-shek summed up his policy as one of "non-resistance" to imperialism!
In the early 1930s the Japanese were able to advance, without meeting any serious opposition from the Kuomintang forces, to the occupation of Shanghai and other cities. Chinese generals actually supplied the occupying troops with the raw materials and oil they needed. Later in the war, too, Japanese imperialism found open collaborators in the Kuomintang regime and in its armies in particular.
During this period also, Chinese industry was more and more taken over by imperialist concerns. For instance, in 1934, British and Japanese capitalism controlled half the production of Chinese yarn.
It is against this background - on the one side the savage attacks on the conditions and the democratic rights of the working class, and on the other side the greater and greater dismemberment of China - that we have to view the role of the Chinese Communist Party and its leaders in the wake of the 1925-27 revolution. 

Transitional demands 

At the height of the revolutionary upsurge, as Trotsky and the Left Opposition in the Communist International pointed out, the slogan of soviets (workers' councils) should have been on the agenda and part of the programme of the Chinese CP, as a preparation for taking power. Following the defeat of the 1925-27 revolution, however, when a military dictatorship exercised an iron grip over all the major cities of China, this would obviously no longer be correct.
Therefore, Trotsky put forward the idea that it was necessary now to raise a programme of transitional demands - on wages, on hours, on conditions, and also on all the democratic demands of the working people: the right to strike, freedom of assembly, and so on. These were to be linked to the slogan of land to the peasants, which could have mobilised the rural masses around the working class and the CP as the most democratic and revolutionary force in society.
The crowning slogan would be for a revolutionary constituent assembly - a parliament of the masses, in other words, to be convened by the working class in the course of the struggle against the Kuomintang.
The Chinese CP leadership, however, entirely rejected this programme. This leadership, after the resignation and subsequent expulsion of Ch'en Tu-hsiu, was in the hands of Li Li-san, who was completely obedient to Stalin and the bureaucracy in Russia. This was the 'third period' (ultra-left period) of Stalinism, when the slogan was "soviets everywhere!"- regardless of circumstances.
The CP leadership rejected democratic and transitional demands, which would have been the means of mobilising the working class and peasantry to carry through the socialist transformation of society. Instead, when workers went on strike in Shanghai, Hankow, Canton and other cities, the Communist Party called on them to organise soviets. The workers replied: "Excellencies, you are very good and talented, but please go away. All we can struggle for today is a piece of bread to feed our bellies."
To convince these workers, the general idea of the socialist revolution would have had to be linked with their day-to-day struggles against the capitalists and landlords. Instead, as a result of its insane policy, the Communist Party completely lost its base in the industrial areas. It ceased to be a working-class party.
This is made clear by the facts and figures provided by the Chinese CP leaders in relation to the party membership. In 1927 there were 60 000 members of the CP, and 58% of the membership was proletarian in character.
In 1928, after the murders and persecutions of the counter-revolution, the membership of the CP had apparently grown. What this really reflected, however, was the fact that the party leadership had abandoned the cities - gone into the countryside. The working-class membership of the CP had shrunk to 10% of the total. In 1929 only 3% of CP members were industrial workers. By September 1930 the figure was 1.6%.
In other words, the Chinese Communist Party was no longer a proletarian party in the Marxist sense of the term.
The ex-leaders of the proletariat - the ex-leaders of the Shanghai and Canton working class in particular -had gone into the countryside following the 1925-27 debacle.
To begin with, however, they did not find a big echo among the peasantry. As Mao Tse-tung himself reported subsequently, they were even attacked by the peasants, who were accustomed to armies coming across their territory and plundering them. Initially the Red detachments were assumed to be just another marauding army.
In the period that followed, a number of allegedly 'Red' armies were created in different parts of China. One of them, in Hunan, was led by Mao Tse-tung, who subsequently became the political leader of the Red Army, with Chu Teh as the military leader. This army - I haven't time to go into it - landed up in Kiangsi in the early 1930s.
Chiang Kai-shek, while utterly incapable of facing up to the attacks of imperialism, directed all his forces and energies instead against the small forces of the Reds in the predominantly peasant areas. In fact, no more brilliant pages have been written in Chinese history, than the victories that were scored between 1929 and 1934 by the Red forces against Chiang Kai-shek and the forces of the Kuomintang.
The Kuomintang armies - four, five and six times stronger - were sent against the Red forces particularly in Kiangsi province. But they were incapable of militarily dislodging the Reds by these means.
It was only after Chiang Kai-shek had assembled an army of half a million and completely surrounded the Red districts - when the Kuomintang was armed with all the resources of imperialism, including nearly 400 airplanes, while the Reds did not have a single airplane - only then was the Red Army leadership forced to decide to break out of the encirclement.
In October 1934 the Red Army began what became known as the Long March. Again, it is one of the greatest pages in the military and social history, certainly of China, and indeed of the world. The heroic detachments of the Red Army - totalling some 90 000 in the beginning, and accompanied by many thousands of peasants - undertook a march of exactly a year over an arduous route of nearly 10 000 km.
Under the direction of Chu Teh and Mao Tse-tung, they achieved this while repeatedly engaging enemy forces vastly outnumbering their own. Eventually they found refuge in the mountain fastness of Yenan in Shensi. 

Trotsky's prognosis 

In 1932, at the time when the peasant 'Red' Army was scoring brilliant victories over the Kuomintang in Kiangsi, Trotsky had posed the question of what would happen if this army, after defeating the landlords, entered the cities.
He pointed out that the Red Army leaders were ex-workers. The Red forces were made up predominantly of peasants, ex-peasants or landless labourers, and also refugees from the various warlords. In the publications of the Communist Party itself complaints were voiced over the admission into the Red Army of the lumpen proletariat and the lumpen agricultural population.
In other words, in social composition, the Red Army was the same mixture mainly of peasants and ex-peasants that had been seen in China over thousands of years: traditional peasant armies that had arisen against oppression and exploitation by the landlords.
In posing the question of what would happen if the Red Army entered the cities, Trotsky drew on the experience of Russia. He pointed out that there, after the October Revolution, the Red Army was initially made up mainly of workers' detachments, who fought the armies of counter-revolution (known as the 'Whites') throughout the length and breadth of the country. At the same time there were peasant detachments that arose.
So long as they were fighting against the Whites there was a common cause between the Red (proletarian) Army and the various peasant armies. But once the Whites had been vanquished, the different character of the armies came to the fore.
The tendency of the proletariat, organised in big industry, is to collectivise industry, to plan and to organise production. The tendency of the peasantry, because it is so scattered, so stratified and so heterogeneous, is to divide up property and share out the booty.
What, asked Trotsky, if the peasant 'Red Army' in China, victorious in the countryside, were to enter the cities? Is it not possible, he said, that it would clash with the working class; that it would be hostile to the demands of the working class; and that its commanders, despite their 'Communist' label, would fuse with the capitalist class, resulting in a classical capitalist development? There were indeed many parallels in the previous two thousand years of Chinese history, when the leaders of victorious peasant armies had fused with the then ruling classes in the towns.
In a crucial respect that prognosis of Trotsky was not borne out in the Chinese Revolution of 1944-49, for, as we know, capitalism was overthrown as a result of the victory of the Red Army. Nevertheless, as I shall go on to explain, Trotsky correctly foreshadowed the main features that were evident in the revolution, on the basis of the class forces involved. 

"United front" 

In the 1930s, Chiang Kai-shek was so preoccupied with fighting the Reds that he abandoned the defence of China against imperialist encroachments. Eventually, even within the Kuomintang itself, and particularly within the Kuomintang armies, there was an enormous hostility growing up - firstly, to the advance of imperialism, and, secondly, to the impotency of Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang leaders in facing up to these attacks.
That culminated in 1936 when the Kuomintang general staff ordered their army in Shensi to attack the Red Army once again. There was enormous discontent; they reluctantly attacked and were defeated. As a result of that, the Kuomintang army was in a ferment of revolt.
Chiang Kai-shek, as was his wont, decided to fly to the battlefront in order to deal with the situation. While he was there, near Sian, the army rose in revolt. Chiang Kai-shek was found crouching on a mountain-side in his nightshirt!
He was brought before the Kuomintang rank-and-file, and the cry went up: "Bring the butcher of the Chinese people to a people's trial!" It showed their readiness to be rid of the bourgeois Kuomintang dictatorship and face up to the struggle against Japanese imperialism.
But, as was the case in 1925-27, once again the Chinese Communist Party leadership came to the rescue of Chiang Kai-shek. Chou En-lai, as representative of Mao Tse-tung, flew into Sian. He walked into the room where Chiang Kai-shek was held.
Let us recall that Chou En-lai had been in the headquarters of the General Labour Union in 1927 at the time of the suppression of the Shanghai working class. He had seen the butchery of Chiang Kai-shek at first hand. So Chiang turned white when Chou En-lai walked into the room at Sian! Quickly, he clicked his heels and saluted Chou as the generalissimo - as the leader - of the Chinese revolution.
In other words, the leader - the very fountainhead - of the counter-revolution was in the hands of the Reds. The troops of the Kuomintang were prepared to go over to the side of revolution.
But instead of basing themselves on this fact, what policy did the Chinese CP leadership pursue? Chou En-lai discussed "successfully" with Chiang Kai-shek for about two days, and eventually a "united front" was forged - an allegedly united front that the Communist Party had been advocating since the world Comintern Conference of 1935.
That was the conference at which the 'third period' was abandoned and Stalinism internationally swung over to Popular Frontism - the policy of alliance with the so-called "progressive" bourgeoisie. For this reason the Communist Party leaders in China, firmly under the control of Mao Tse-tung at this stage, were seeking a united front with the Kuomintang leadership against Japanese imperialism.
Eventually they did link up formally in a united front in 1936/37. This in turn was the moment chosen by Japanese imperialism to launch a full-blown military campaign in order to capture Chinese territory.
It is very interesting to examine in detail the process of this alleged "united front" - something which, unfortunately, there is not time to do here. But what is important about the whole experience in China in the 1930s is this: In the first phase when the Red armies went into Kiangsi, they drove out the landlords and began to carry through a land reform. But on the basis of signing this "united front" agreement with the Kuomintang - indeed as a precondition for it - a halt was called to the land reform in the Red areas.
Trotsky said at this stage that one would not rule out the possibility of co-ordinated military action against Japanese imperialism by the forces of the Kuomintang, led by Chiang Kai-shek, and the forces of the-Reds. But this would be on condition that there was complete independence of the forces of the Reds and of the labour movement in China.
Moreover, as Trotsky stressed, and as the parallel experience of Russia had shown, the strongest weapon in fighting Japanese imperialism would be to carry through a social programme of land to the tillers and the factories to the proletariat.
But in China, in the "united front" period, the Reds did not do that. On the contrary, within the Red areas, land was retained by the rich peasants; and the rich peasants began more and more to creep into the ranks of the Red Army and the embryonic state machine that existed in the Red areas. Even Chou En-Iai and Mao Tse-tung complained about this.
At the same time, in the towns that were controlled by the Reds there was a similar situation to that which had occurred as a result of CP policy in Shanghai and Canton during the 1925-27 revolution: class collaboration with the capitalists; a deliberate attempt to restrict the movement of the working class; the workers were not to ask for more than the capitalists were prepared to give; and so on.
But the most important feature of this so-called united front with the Kuomintang was that, in the course of the war itself, the Kuomintang was utterly incapable of resisting the advance of the Japanese forces. The Kuomintang forces retreated to the central and western parts of China. The only force that really fought Japanese imperialism was the Red Army.
The programme of Japanese imperialism in the countryside of China was summed up in the horrific slogan of the Three Alls- "Loot all, burn all, and kill all." Through this absolute ruthlessness, the peasants were driven into the ranks of the Red Army.
Thus the end result was that Japanese imperialism merely held the major industrial areas and a narrow strip of land along the railways. Already in the early part of the war, much of the rest of China came under the influence of the Red Army and its leadership.
Already in the Red areas we saw the embryo of a state machine. In 1945, for instance, at the end of the Second World War, the area that was controlled by the Reds had a population of about 90 million. The embryonic state power of the Reds was such that they even produced their own currency.
The Kuomintang fought only an occasional engagement against the Japanese. The calculation of Chiang Kai-shek was that he would keep his forces in the west so that, as soon as Japanese imperialism was defeated in the World War by American imperialism, he would occupy the eastern seaboard of China once again.
He expected then that there would be a repetition of the events of 1925-27, and the capitulation of the Chinese CP leadership. This did not happen, for reasons I will go into in a moment.
It is important to emphasise that most of the energies of the Kuomintang during the war were directed against the Reds whenever it was possible to do so. In 1941-42, for example, when the Red Army was attempting to engage the Japanese in combat, in the course of the crossing of a number of rivers the Kuomintang treacherously attacked the forces of the Reds.
This was in complete violation of the so-called "united front" against Japanese imperialism which had been agreed. 

Outcome of the War

Eventually, as we know, Japanese imperialism was defeated in the course of the Second World War, capitulating in 1945 after the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Then Chiang Kai-shek was faced with an enormous dilemma.
First of all, the Russian Stalinist bureaucracy intervened in Manchuria, and occupied practically the whole of it in a nine-day war. It was obvious that Stalin was even considering the establishment there of a puppet regime. Li Li-san (whom I mentioned before as a stooge of Stalin) had been removed from the Chinese CP leadership in 1930 and had remained in Moscow after that. Now he was brought back on the heels of Stalin's troops as part of a half-hearted attempt by the bureaucracy in Russia to establish their position in Manchuria.
Manchuria actually contained most of Chinese industry at that particular stage. When the Stalinist bureaucracy occupied Manchuria, they proceeded - in the same hooligan fashion as they did in Germany - to strip the whole area of its factories, of its technical expertise, and transported it back to Russia.
This was in complete contradiction to all the principles of internationalism that Lenin and the Bolsheviks had established in 1917. The narrow, nationalist, bureaucratic concepts of Stalinism resulted in the looting of Manchuria.
The Red Army having penetrated Manchuria, Chiang Kai-shek was flown in by the Americans from the western areas that he occupied. Chiang now found himself in the position that Japanese imperialism had been in previously. He had the towns and some parts of the railways - those parts of the railways that the peasants had not ripped up. (In a very famous tradition of Chinese peasant resistance, they bent the rails to make them unusable.)
Chiang Kai-shek then had to think about importing his troops and equipment into northern China and Manchuria by sea, with the aid of American imperialism. In all, he was in a very difficult strategic position.
But at the end of the Second WorId War, there was tremendous pressure on the Chinese Red Army, which was predominantly a peasant force, to come to an agreement once again with Chiang Kai-shek, In 1945 there was considerable war-weariness, and in that year the Red Army leaders decided once more to negotiate with the Kuomintang.
I mentioned before that Trotsky had expected that, when the Red Army entered the cities, the leaders might fuse with the capitalist class, with the result that a classical capitalist development would take place. But let us recall that, by the end of the Second World War, two decades had elapsed since the 1925-27 revolution and the capitulation at that time of the Chinese CP leaders to the Kuomintang bourgeoisie.
Now Chinese society was completely in an impasse. Landlordism and capitalism had had the opportunity in those two decades to solve the problems of Chinese society, and had been found wanting. Chinese capitalism was incapable of tackling the land problem; incapable of unifying China; impotent against imperialism; incapable of stopping the blood-letting and the suffering of the Chinese people.
To take just one example of the terrible bankruptcy of the capitalist system in China - the rate of inflation in one year after the Second World War was 10 000%! Money became completely worthless. The whole of Chinese society was completely disorganised.
Moreover, during the period of the Kuomintang dictatorship, as a minimum estimate one million people had perished in China as a direct result of the monstrous repressive measures of this regime. That is apart from the slaughter carried out by Japanese imperialism.
Nevertheless, at the end of the war there was pressure, on account of war-weariness, for the Kuomintang and the Communist Party to collaborate. Some Marxists in the West - alleged Marxists, that is - said: "Ah, look! Mao Tse-tung is attempting to capitulate to Chiang Kai-shek."
But was this the case? It was correct, in fact, for the Red Army leadership to negotiate with the Kuomintang at that stage. This was necessary in order to make it clear to the masses that the Reds were not the ones who should be held responsible for continuing the war, but that they were in favour of peace.
And what was the programme that Mao Tse-tung put forward at this point? It is very interesting to examine this programme:
*Punish war criminals. Who were the war criminals? Mostly the tops of the Kuomintang - who, by the way, in Manchuria, had taken over and absorbed into the Kuomintang armies all the collaborators with Japanese imperialism. The war criminals were the leadership of the Kuomintang.
*Abrogate the bogus constitution - on which the Kuomintang rested.
*Abolish the pretended legitimacy of the Kuomintang power. This meant that the Kuomintang leaders were no longer to be considered the legitimate holders of political power.
*Reform all reactionary armies in accordance with democratic principles - a devastating blow against the Kuomintang officer caste and ruling clique.
*Confiscate bureaucratic capital. That was, in effect, a pseudonym for "Take over capitalism" -nationalise the capital that was controlled by imperialism and by the tops of the Kuomintang and their supporters.
*Reform the agrarian system.
*Abrogate treaties of national betrayal.
*Convoke a consultative conference without the participation of reactionary elements.
It was absolutely impossible for the Kuomintang leadership to enter into an agreement with the Red Army on any of these measures - measures so obviously necessary and acceptable to the mass of the Chinese people. There followed a short interregnum in which American imperialism tried to exert pressure for a coalition. That was not successful, and in turn resulted in the resumption of the war in 1946.
Really the civil war in China took place between 1946 and 1949. In a whole series of battles the forces of the Kuomintang were smashed. In Manchuria, they were surrounded in the cities, which eventually fell. Then the Red Army moved into the central and eastern provinces.

Social situation

If we look at the combination of factors that existed in Chinese society at that stage, it was obvious that the situation was not as Trotsky had anticipated in the period before the Second World War. The impotence and bankruptcy of landlordism and capitalism - its utter inability to show a way forward for Chinese society - had by now gone much further than could have been foreseen.
It would be wrong to think that it was military superiority which guaranteed the victories of the Red Army in the clashes that took place in the Chinese civil war. On the contrary, the Kuomintang had overwhelming superiority in military terms. There were roughly one million troops in the Kuomintang armies, and they were armed with the very latest in weapons and technique by American imperialism.
What happened is that, in every battle which took place, the Kuomintang was defeated by the revolutionary propaganda of the Red Army - in particular by the call of "land to the tillers!"
Under the impetus of the mass movement that developed in 1947, Mao Tse-tung and the Chinese CP leadership had been forced to adopt a much more radical land programme than had existed in the Red areas during the earlier "united front" period. As a result, the propaganda of the Red Army was like tanks going through the lines of the Kuomintang armies.
When they defeated an army of the Kuomintang, the Reds did not take the troops prisoner. They released the Kuomintang troops - and imbued them with the idea that the Reds wanted them to take over the land and smash the landlord and capitalist exploiters.
That was more successful than airplanes, bullets and all the latest word in armaments in disintegrating the Kuomintang armies. Eventually it resulted in the total collapse of the Kuomintang in 1947-48.
But even as late as 1948 there were alleged "Marxists", alleged "Trotskyists", who were insisting that Mao Tse-tung was attempting to capitulate to Chiang Kai-shek! As one wag in America said, "If that is true, the problem is he can't catch him"- because, in fact, Chiang and his forces were running away from the forces of the Reds, from the north of China right down the eastern seaboard to the southern coast itself.
Another claim that was put forward, by the allegedly "Trotskyist" SWP in America, was that Mao Tse-tung would never cross the Yangtze River. However, on the day that they published this in their paper, Mao was already 60 km beyond the Yangtze.
They were operating with all the old formulas that Trotsky had worked out in the inter-war period-but they were incapable of understanding Trotsky's method and of relating his ideas to the changing situation, and the new combination of factors and forces that had arisen in the period 1944-49.
Chinese landlordism and capitalism was utterly impotent to develop society any further. A vacuum existed in Chinese society. Japanese imperialism had been defeated and could not intervene. American imperialism itself was not able to intervene directly.
In the aftermath of the Second World War, throughout the whole of Asia there were massive movements of American troops wanting to go home. The famous "Bring the Boys Home" movement developed throughout the West.
So American imperialism could supply Chiang Kai-shek with the latest armaments (which by the way, were subsequently captured by the Reds and used not only in China, but also against American imperialism in Korea), but they were not able to bolster up the armies of the Kuomintang with troops. They could not stop the disintegrating effects on the Kuomintang armies caused by the social situation that existed in China at that time.
The incapacity of imperialism to intervene was summed up in one famous - or infamous - incident (depending on your point of view). That was the "Amethyst" incident.
Let us remember that in Shanghai and Canton, at the time of the 1925-27 revolution, the British imperialists brazenly shot down Chinese workers and peasants. Yet in 1949 when the British warship Amethyst managed to sneak down the Yangtze River, evade the Red gun-boats, and escape, that was hailed as a "great victory" in the British press. That was a graphic illustration of the impotence of imperialism to intervene against the Chinese revolution.
The power vacuum that existed in China was more important in determining the outcome of the revolution than all the speeches of Mao Tse-tung, when he said, for instance, that national capitalism in China would last a hundred years.
Understanding this enabled the Marxist tendency, which today is gathered round the Militant newspaper (and we trace our antecedents right back to that period), to grasp correctly the process of the revolution that was taking place in China.
The Marxists of the Militant Tendency argued that the development would not be as Trotsky had anticipated in the inter-war period. Certainly it would not be a conscious movement of the proletariat like the October Revolution in Russia in 1917. It would be a peasant army entering the cities, as Trotsky clearly foresaw. But Instead of the commanders of the peasant army fusing with the capitalist class and a capitalist development taking place, it was now inevitable that capitalism would be overthrown.
This was because of the exhaustion and bankruptcy of Chinese capitalism; because of the weakness of imperialism on a world scale in the aftermath of the Second World War; because of the greatly increased strength of Stalinism as a result of the Second World War, in Russia and Eastern Europe; because, also, Mao Tse-tung and the leaders of the Red Army had a model of the kind of state and the kind of society that they could confidently move to create in China.
But while, therefore, the outcome of the revolution would not be as Trotsky had expected in the inter-war period, by no stretch of the imagination could Mao Tse-tung and the Chinese CP and Red Army leaders be considered communists, in the classical sense of the term.
They were not Marxists in the sense that they did not base themselves on the proletariat - which is absolutely fundamental to the Marxist approach, method, strategy and tactics. On the contrary, they were deadly fearful of the movement of the proletariat and of any action by the workers which they could not directly control.
The Chinese CP leaders were Bonapartist leaders, resting on the peasant Red Army, and manoeuvring in order to gather absolute power over society into their own hands. From the outset the model for their regime was the Stalinist dictatorship in Russia, which had arisen out of the degeneration of the Russian Revolution. Mao began at the point which Stalin had already reached.
This was the explanation and analysis put forward by the Marxists of the Militant Tendency at the time of the Chinese Revolution itself. It was explained that, like Stalin, Mao would balance between the classes while consolidating his regime, and in the process ruthlessly suppress all independent actions and initiatives by the workers.
As in Russia, so in China capitalism was eliminated and a nationalised and planned economy introduced. But while the Russian workers' state began on healthy lines of workers' democracy and subsequently degenerated, the state established in China by the Red Army was a deformed workers' state, a Stalinist state from the outset. 

International effects

The difference between the Russian and Chinese revolutions was enormous also in the different international repercussions which they produced. The October Revolution in Russia inspired tremendous movements of the working class throughout the world. An example was the revolutionary events in Italy, in 1920, where the workers occupied the factories.
An indication of the way that the proletariat internationally identified with the Russian Revolution was, paradoxically, indicated by the barrage of propaganda put up by the capitalist press at the time. The propaganda against the Russian Revolution put in the shade the lies and filth that we encounter in the Daily Express, for instance, today.
To give one humorous example: the New York Times carried over a hundred articles between 1918 and 1921 which said either that Trotsky had bumped off Lenin, or that Lenin had bumped off Trotsky! One headline was "Trotsky Assassinates Lenin in Drunken Brawl"! Now, if that was in a serious journal such as the New York Times, imagine the kind of stories that would appear in the yellow press.
But despite the propaganda, the working class internationally instinctively knew that their class was in power, and it inspired them.
In Russia there had been democratic organs of control and management in the form of the soviets. Nothing of this character existed in China between 1946-49 or in the aftermath. In the main, in the big cities, " ... Political apathy and inertia were stronger even than universal dissatisfaction ... the revolution finally engulfed Peking, but it was full-grown and did not grow gradually within the City itself." (Communist China on the Eve of Takeover by A. Doak Bennet, p. 325.)
Furthermore; the Stalinist leaders of the Chinese Communist Party and Red Army displayed the fear of the 'full-grown' bureaucracy towards any independent movement by the working class. In their eight-point peace programme, presented as a manoeuvre before they occupied Peking, they unashamedly warned the working class: "Those who strike or destroy will be punished ... those working in these organisations (factories) should work peacefully and wait for the takeover."
And true to their word, any independent action by the working class was met with ruthless repression. Contrast this attitude with that shown by Lenin and the Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution. The Bolsheviks looked towards the working class as the main agent of change and urged: "the land to the tillers and the factories to the producers."
Without any question, the Chinese revolution of1944-49 was one of the greatest events in human history. It was the second greatest event, surpassed only by the October Revolution of 1917.
One quarter of mankind stepped onto the stage of history, and put behind them once and forever the disease, the ravages, the misery that landlordism and capitalism had meant for them.
The Chinese revolution inspired and gave a push to the colonial revolution in Africa, Asia and Latin America. It was an event of great historical importance, but at the same time an event that could not have the same effect as the Russian Revolution on the working class internationally.
It established a planned economy, as most of industry was gradually taken over by the state, and a thorough-going land reform was carried through. But at the same time there was the establishment of a one-party totalitarian regime.
The idea that there was a democracy in China in 1949 is a fairy-tale, for the consumption of children of 10 or younger.
Now, if we look at the situation in China at that particular stage, we see that Mao Tse-tung formed a "coalition" with the Kuomintang. To be more exact, he formed a coalition with the "People's Kuomintang” - supposedly representing the ‘national’ capitalists - which had a total membership of a few hundred. Not exactly a mighty force, in a population of three-quarters of a billion.
On the surface what Mao Tse-tung had done coincided with a phrase that Trotsky had used in the 1930s in relation to Spain. This is where a lot of "Trotskyists", who used only the phrases of Trotsky without grasping his meaning, made hopeless mistakes in relation to China.
Trotsky said that in Spain the Stalinist CP had formed a coalition, not with the capitalist class, but with their shadow. What he meant by this was that the capitalists in reality had all fled to the side of General Franco and the counter-revolution; and the workers' leaders had formed a coalition with the ex-representatives of the capitalists in Spain.
This was the 'Popular Front' which served to hold the working class back from taking state power, and thus preserved capitalism in Spain. Gradually the "shadow" got substance, and the workers' movement in Republican Spain was smashed.
On the face of it, in China, Mao Tse-tung had entered into a coalition with the shadow of the capitalist class. But there was a crucial difference in China at this time, as opposed to Spain in 1936-39. The real levers of state power were not in the hands of the bourgeois partners of the Red Army, in the so-called People's Kuomintang. They were entirely in the hands of Mao Tse-tung, the Red Army and the so-called Communist Party - particularly the police, the military, and so on.
The "coalition" with the capitalist People's Kuomintang counted for nothing against the enormous objective pressures forcing the regime to move to eliminate capitalism and take the economy into state hands. Therefore we had in China the development of a totalitarian one-party regime based on a progressive economic system - a planned economy.
Only by understanding the relationship of forces in the Chinese Revolution is it possible to grasp the very complex processes that are taking place in Asia, Africa and Latin America at the present time. The processes are not according to any schema laid down in advance by Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky - yet only the method developed by these great teachers in their time enables us to understand what is taking place.
We can understand the processes if all the comrades gain a fuller grasp of the features of the Chinese revolution of 1944-49, and the way in which that revolution developed. It was not a case of the working class playing the main role in the revolution, but of a victorious peasant army entering the cities. It was a case of a Bonapartist regime which established a planned economy - which in that sense historically expressed the material interests of the working class.
But in no sense was it a regime of workers' democracy along the lines of the Bolshevik regime in Russia in 1917. It was not - and is not - a socialist regime moving towards the development of socialist society. That is impossible unless power is in the hands of the working class, and a regime of workers' democracy prevails.
Unfortunately, because of the way the regime developed in China, the Chinese working class will have to pay with a new revolution - this time a political revolution - establishing workers' democracy on the foundations of the planned economy. Only then will the way be clear for Chinese society to move towards socialism in the context of a world socialist federation.

Tuesday, 12 November 2019

Capitalist Crisis: Tribune’s ‘Alternative Strategy’ or Socialist Plan (1979)

(by Andrew Glyn – A Militant Pamphlet, 1979)

Now that the General Election has been called for 12 December, trade unionists and socialists are discussing whether, if elected, a Corbyn-led Labour Government could carry out the kind of radical transformation needed to expand the economy and reverse the attacks on workers’ living standards.

The article below is an abridged version of a Militant pamphlet written 40 years ago, under the Labour government of 1974-79. It is a timely reminder of debates around socialist policies at the time - and also clearly shows that Corbyn’s programme is actually quite mild compared to that of the left of the Labour Party in the 1970s.

The pamphlet argues against a left Labour government attempting to “implant in a partial fashion aspects of a fully-blooded socialist plan on what would remain fundamentally a capitalist organism ... By attempting to go part of the way towards a socialist programme, this strategy is not ‘transitional’ to such a programme, but is transitional to a tremendous disaster. An attempt simply to implement such a programme would be met by the capitalist using the enormous economic power left in their hands to sabotage the government’s plans”.

These debates will again become very relevant when a future Labour Government again comes under attack from capitalism – so read on!

This post excludes some content that is of more historical interest, particularly from Chapter I. If you want to check the full original version, transcribed for the internet by Iain Dalton, visit: It can also be ordered to be purchased as an 'e-book' here


The boom in the capitalist world during the 1950s and 1960s represented the fastest growth of production in human history. But even this could conceal only to a degree British capital’s headlong plunge into oblivion as a world economic power. While continuing to invest much less than their rivals, the British capitalists blamed their decline on the improvements in living standards and social services they were forced to concede to the workers. Their humiliation was sealed by the defeat of the Tory Government after the miners’ strike of 1974.

Against this background there is an element of grim satisfaction amongst the bosses in presenting as an inevitable scaling down of the pretensions of the mass of workers the developments of the last two or three years. The million rise of unemployment is said to be the inevitable “natural” result of “too high” employment in the past, the cut in public expenditure is presented as a cut in “unproductive” spending which “cannot be afforded”, the cut in living standards is explained as a facing up to “economic reality”. The real hardship involved in long periods of unemployment, in hospital wards being closed down, in school children inadequately fed, in housing waiting lists growing must be endured as “facts of life”.

Revenge is all the sweeter because these “sacrifices” are being imposed by a Labour Government, forced also to shelve its plans to curb the power of capital – the wealth tax, land nationalisation, planning agreements, nationalisation of profitable firms.

This pamphlet examines first the depth of the crisis and the policy of the capitalists which they have forced on the Labour Government. This is essential in order to take up in a detailed fashion the Alternative Economic Strategy proposed as an alternative to capitalist policies by many on the Left of the Labour movement. Given our assessment of the inadequacy of this strategy in the final section we consider the basic elements of a socialist plan of production capable of surmounting the crisis and mobilising society’s resources.

I. Capitalist Crisis 

Unemployed Resources and Social Needs

As well as the incalculable cost of the demoralisation and misery of the unemployed and their families, unemployment represents a monstrous waste of society’s resources in terms of what those workers could produce.

This immediately raises the question of why all these resources are left unused. If it was true that the unemployed were scroungers it would certainly be a magnificent testimony to capitalism, that it turned a large section of society into parasites. Parasites there are of course, who live on the labour of others, but out of choice and in great comfort derived from their stocks and shares. The vicious and reactionary theory that the unemployed are there from choice has no basis.

The Tories and the gutter press never explain how cutting down workers’ capacity to hold out on the dole while looking for a job will increase total employment. It would do nothing of the sort since production is not low because there are not enough workers but because there are not enough profitable markets. The campaign against scroungers and in favour of making the dole less “generous” has got nothing to do with reducing unemployment. What the capitalists are after is making unemployment even more intolerable, so that fear of the sack is a more potent weapon for ‘disciplining’ the workers.

Technological Unemployment

A hundred years ago the Church told people to accept their fate as the will of God. In 1978 a TV pundit mutters darkly about technology and presses a button which makes “2 to 4 million unemployed in the 1980s” appear in computer-readable lettering on the TV screen beside him. He is also conjuring up the idea of a process beyond the control of man. But this new technological fatalism is just as much of a smoke-screen as its religious counterpart.

For the idea that the mass unemployment of recent years is due to a sudden acceleration in technical progress has no basis. Certainly the tendency to replace men by machines (the increase in what Marx called the technical composition of capital) has been a feature of capitalist development in recent years. But this is always the case. It was just as true of the boom of the fifties and early sixties when there was more or less ‘full’ employment.

The reason for the rise in unemployment over recent years has not been a sudden acceleration of productivity – in fact it has stagnated. Rather it is explained mainly by the slower provision of new jobs rather than the faster destruction of old jobs. No more male workers are joining the dole each year than was case 10 years ago. The rise in unemployment reflects the fact that each worker put out of a job, or leaving for some other reason, is finding it much more difficult to find a new one – the average unemployed worker had been looking for a job for 17 weeks in 1977.

To see investment and technical progress as destroying jobs is to see just one side of the two-fold relation between the accumulation of capital and employment. As Marx explained, on the one side accumulation of capital means more jobs on the new capacity. On the other hand accumulation ‘repels’ workers as competition from the new capacity drives out old. In Japan for example in the 1950s and 1960s the industrial capital stock grew at 12.5% a year, three times as fast as the British capitalists managed. But far from meaning that employment grew slower, it grew at 3.7% a year in Japan and not at all in Britain. This, despite the fact that industrial productivity in Japan also grew three times as fast. The crucial difference is that Japanese capitalists were able to expand their share of world markets on the basis of this tremendous rise in productivity, and that their home market was propelled forward by the massive growth of investment.

So the basic reason for the rise in unemployment faced by British workers over the past ten years is not too high investment, it is too low a growth of production. In capitalist terms this means just one thing. Too slow growth of a profitable market.

The basic factor behind these developments was the catastrophic fall in the rate of profit sustained by British capitalism – from 13.5% in 1960 to 3.5% in 1975 according to the Bank of England’s figures for the pre-tax rate of profit of industrial and commercial companies.

The Cuts

In response to this decline in profits the British capitalists have reduced investment and demanded reductions in living standards which the Labour Government has implemented through the various stages of the Social Contract. Moreover they have insisted that the government cuts its expenditure. There seems at first sight to be something very contradictory about big business demanding these cuts. For public expenditure provides markets for private industry directly (building council houses etc.) or indirectly (through the spending by teachers of their wages etc.). Moreover, lending to the government to finance its deficit (the excess of its spending over taxation) has been (for many capitalists) a more lucrative avenue for investment than buying more machines, factories etc. So cuts in public spending mean less markets and less opportunity for lending to the government, at a time when other markets and investment opportunities are scarce. In 1975, in fact, interest paid out by the government on the national debt (which represents the deficits of past years) was actually greater (at £4,500 million) than the net profits of industrial and commercial companies. Isn’t the CBI cutting off its nose to spite its face when it calls for further cuts?

But the capitalist class in Britain, even the financiers of the City who have reaped the immediate profits, have seen the ultimate futility of lending to the government at the expense of neglecting reinvestment in industry. For it is only investment in industry which would allow British capitalism to compete with its rivals on world markets on the basis of the latest technique of production and halt the decline of its share of world trade. Only the ploughing back of profits into new factories and plants, will increase the productivity of labour in the future and enable concessions to be granted to the labour movement in terms of wage increases and improved social services. By contrast, investing profits in government bonds does not lead to greater productivity in the future. Except in the most indirect and long-term fashion (via improved health or educational standards), expenditure on the social services financed by borrowing from the capitalists is not productive as far as the capitalist system is concerned.

Although the capitalists who lend to the government receive interest they are in effect sharing in the surplus value produced, without increasing it. Most government investment, in schools or hospitals for example, does not lead to cheaper public services in the future and thus savings for the capitalist class. Rather it tends to lead to improved services (better hospitals allowing more sophisticated treatment) and thus more expenses in the future. The capitalist class in Britain has seen that continuing on the road of accumulating 10% or more of the national product in the form of government bonds spells ultimate ruin. The offensive against public spending, the CBI’s message that “it is good to create wealth” and that “wealth has to be created before it is distributed” reflect the realisation that lending to the government to provide concessions for the working class in the form of improved social services cannot be a long-term strategy. Only driving down living standards to increase profits, and ensuring they are ploughed back into investment which improves its competitive position can restore the position of British capital.

Catch 22

The massive planned cuts in spending of £2½ billion per year have been supplemented by “unplanned” cuts of £4 billion through the operation of the vicious cash limits system. Still investment is stagnating. The explanation is that to justify new investment capitalists do not only require to be earning an ‘acceptable’ rate of profit on their existing investments.

An adequate market in which to sell the extra products turned out by the new factories is necessary as well. And the attempt to improve profitability by cutting wages and pushing up unemployment reduces the level of spending which workers can afford. Sales fall and excess capacity develops in the consumer goods industries. Cuts in public spending compound the problem. It seems as though the capitalists are caught in a “Catch 22” situation. If they don’t succeed in driving down living standards, profitability is too low to justify investment. If they do, then there is no market for the goods which would be produced with the extra plant and equipment.

An individual capitalist can avoid this logic if he can find a market at the expense of his rivals by driving down his costs (the living standards of the workers he employs) to a sufficient extent.

Capitalists tend automatically adopt this attitude when confronted with an overall decline in profitability; the profit margin can be restored by driving down real wages so that is the first priority. And, for the capitalist class in an individual country, the strategy of driving down living standards would work if it could expand its sales at the expense of its rivals; that is by increasing the share of its exports in world trade and reducing imports. In the crisis each country relies on an export boom cutting into the others’ markets to provide the growing market needed to justify investment.

So it is not that the stagnation in the world economy is the immediate cause of the crisis in Britain; it is rather that it makes a way out from the crisis much more difficult.

The World Crisis

To hope to secure an export boom on the basis solely of cutting into other capitalists’ markets is a pipe dream, especially because capitalists abroad are attempting just the same policies of wage cuts and rationalisation. Any chance of an export boom depends crucially on the growth of the world market. If there was rapid growth in the other capitalist countries then British firms could increase their exports without the need to secure a higher share of the market. But the world boom of the fifties and sixties, which to a certain extent dragged limping British industry along in its wake, is over for good and all.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has labelled the capitalists’ refusal to invest “investment shyness”. But far from being hesitant to press their claims, all that the capitalists are shy about is losing their money. For underlying this decline in investment has been a more or less drastic fall in profitability in the various major countries

The process by which the huge rates of capital accumulation in some countries such as Japan, and the relatively low rates in others such as Britain, combined to give a generalised decline in profitability is a complex question which cannot be gone into here. But the fact that in each of the major capitalist countries the rate of profit had fallen by one half or more as compared with the early sixties, shows the depth of the crisis with which the capitalist class is faced with on a world scale.

While total profits certainly rose since 1975 in a number of countries, they have not recovered earlier heights. The first task of capitalists in all the countries is to restore rate of profit by driving down real wages, through wage controls and unemployment, and by increasing productivity through rationalisations and speedups. Like the British capitalists each group hopes to solve the problem of markets by expanding at the expense of the rest. But only the strong capitalists will succeed.

Moreover it is no good the weak countries like Britain calling on the strong countries to expand their own economies by tax cuts or higher public spending. They all know that their last attempt in 1972/3 to drive the world economy forward through tax cuts and money supply increases collapsed in a disastrous acceleration of inflation. The cuts in living standards have not restored profitability sufficiently, whilst the resulting stagnation has driven out the memory of the booming markets of the sixties.

Excess capacity is running at 15% or more in the capitalist world. Profits are still extremely low. The strong countries are refusing to expand.


The effect of sluggish investment is that the capitalist world has stagnated and the possibility is growing that control of imports will escalate as individual countries seek to protect their markets from the increasingly fierce competition. One economic historian has recently described how in the 1930s there was “a headlong stampede to protection and restriction on imports, each country trying to ward off deflationary pressure of imports, and all together ensuring such pressure through mutual restriction of exports”.

The April 1978 General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade pointed to “a worldwide and disturbing resurgence of protectionist pressures which in recent months have reached a level not experienced for more than a generation” It blamed “a search for new panaceas in the face of unacceptably high unemployment, low investment, an unhappy combination of recession and inflation, monetary disturbances and doubts about the stability of the postwar monetary and trading order”.

A Service Economy

One section of the capitalists based in the City of London, far-sighted enough perhaps to see that the restoration of British industry on a capitalist basis is a pipedream, has turned to a new solution. Former Tory minister David Howell ... calls for “still further expansion of an immensely profitable service industries at which we are so good and which earn so much in world markets” (Evening Standard, November 7, 1977). Could these service sectors provide jobs for the industrial workers put on the dole by the further rundown of manufacturing?

Apart from the dream of establishing financial dominance, the call for an expansion of the services sectors is really a recognition that the one advantage British capital has is cheap labour and that this gives the biggest advantage in ‘labour intensive’ service sectors.

Programme of the CBI

The CBI’s pamphlet gives some revealing pointers to how they foresee the dismantling of the so called Welfare State:
a) “Rents on municipal housing could be increased to more realistic levels”
b) “Transport subsidies should be substantially reduced.”
c) “There is scope for commercial charging for some of the services provided which could save several hundred million pounds. A few examples that could be considered include pre-schools, leisure courses, school meals, higher charges for certain medical services. More radical changes, such as the substitution of loans for grants in higher education and personal insurance to cover the cost of health care, should also be considered to reduce the burden on the general tax payer.”

What is surprising is that the CBI seems to take seriously the view that if workers are charged more for public services, and if their taxes were cut by an equivalent amount, they will feel better off and will be content with lower wage claims.

A worker faced with say an extra £3 per week to payout for rents, school meals, health charges etc. is supposed to be so pleased with the extra £3 he receives in reduced taxation (more likely it would be £1 of course) that he foregoes his next wage claim. Because some of his consumption is “privately financed” (i.e. he pays for it directly himself), implying a “wider freedom to choose between public and private services”, he is supposed to feel better off. This may seem plausible to the authors of the CBI’s programme who no doubt do feel better off ‘privately financing’ their children’s schooling and their own private hospital care (at the expense of the rest of society). But it does not take much imagination to visualise the attitude of most workers to the suggestion that they should feel the glow of satisfaction from handing over more cash to the rent collector or to the doctor’s receptionist.

The Labour Government

The perspectives of the capitalist class whether for the regeneration of industry or the expansion of services offer no solution to the problems of workers. The Labour Government, under relentless pressure from the CBI and the City, ably supported by the IMF, has faithfully followed the demands of the big business. 

In his 1976 budget speech, Dennis Healey (Note: the Labour Government’s Chancellor) said: “It is because our manufacturing industry has declined since the war both in size and efficiency by comparison with those of our competitors that our economic record since the war has been inferior to theirs.” Remedying this would require “a major shift in the use of our resources away from private and public consumption (i.e. workers’ living standards) towards export and investment.”

Job Schemes and Subsidies

The rising tide of unemployment that has resulted from these policies has led the government to introduce a barrage of special employment and training measures to try and keep down the numbers on the register. In reality ... all that happens is that a number of younger workers are taken off the dole to work on the schemes and in order to ‘pay’ for them, more cuts are made elsewhere, pushing other workers on to the dole. These schemes must be condemned as basically cosmetic operations.

The Industrial Strategy and Rationalisations

Dennis Healey described the “industrial strategy” as the means by which “the government, the trade unions and the employers are seeking to improve the performance of our manufacturing industry, in particular its productivity and its ability to compete in world markets.”

The main function of the Sector Working Parties so far has been providing a forum in which the employers pressurise the government for more hand-outs. The favoured ones have been successful in getting a larger slice of the £3,000 million currently handed out to big business via Regional Development Grants (£393 million), Selective Assistance (£144 million), Export Credits (£544 minion), Industrial Training £286 million), Employment Subsidies (£181 million) – nor to mention the £4000 million tax concessions to encourage investment.

The object of such “planning” as there has been is not to expand industry, but rather to savagely “rationalise”, as the TUC sadly noted when it wrote that “implicit in some of the reports is the idea that employment reductions are needed” (TUC Economic Review, 1977). The capitalists hope that by closing down old plants, and speeding up the production process in the rest they can reduce costs and increase profits. Indeed the government has used the companies controlled by the National Enterprise Board to give a lead to this process (see table) – a vicious parody of what the Board was supposed to do (see later explanation).

Loss of Jobs in NEB companies during 1976 and 1977
British Leyland
19,000 jobs lost

600 jobs  gained

Rolls Royce
Source: National Enterprise Board Accounts, 1976 and 1977

Mass Unemployment Into The Eighties

Despite the profits explosion no boom in investment is in prospect. Forecasts for the growth of manufacturing investment in 1977 were reduced from 15–20% to 10–15% and the outcome was only 8%. The same process of downward revision occurred for 1978. The first forecast was for a 12–17% rise, revised down to 10–13%. Even this is above the National Institute’s forecast of 5% growth, slowing down to 4% in 1979.

It is no good Dennis Healey bleating to the City that: “At a time when ... working men and women are being asked to show their confidence in the future by continued self-discipline in pay negotiations, I do not believe it is unfair to ask that British firms should match that confidence by their discussions on investment and show for once (!) that their announced intentions are fulfilled in the event” (Financial Times, October 21, 1977). 

II. The Alternative Strategy of the Left

(Note: ‘Tribune’ was then a newspaper supported by significant sections of left Labour MPs including Brian Sedgemore who served as Tony Benn’s Parliamentary Private Secretary from 1978-79)

The conclusion of the first section of this pamphlet is that the continuance of orthodox policies has no chance of guaranteeing jobs and living standards. In response to the cuts and mass unemployment the majority of the left in the Labour Movement, led by the Tribune Group of MP’s, a number of prominent trade unionists and the Communist Party are now advocating an Alternative Economic Strategy to the policies advocated by the CBI and implemented by the Labour Government. While there are many variants suggested – from the “soft” version of the TUC Economic Review to the hard versions of some of the Tribune Group and the Communist Party (CP) – the measures listed by Brian Sedgmore (Tribune, October 29 1976) under the headline The Alternative Strategy, provide a useful starting point for discussing the different measures involved. 

He gives the following nine points as the “invisible bedrock upon which the alternative strategy is founded”:
* Import Controls
* End to Sterling’s Role as Reserve Currency
* Price Controls and an Incomes Policy
* Planning Agreements
* Muscle to the National Enterprise Board
* Industrial Democracy
* Public Ownership of the Financial Institutions
* The Maintenance of Labour’s Social Programmes
* Defence Cuts

Other ideas usually given a fairly prominent position are the wealth tax and the call for the government to expand the economy through higher real wages and increases in public spending. We also discuss the 35-hour week, included for example in Stuart Holland’s latest version of the Alternative Strategy.

The basic idea is that armed with these policies, a Labour Government could pressurise what would remain a capitalist economy, in that the overwhelming majority of the means of production would remain in private hands, into providing sufficient jobs and improvements in living standards. One assumption behind this approach is that the severity of the economic crisis is exaggerated, so that simply a more determined approach by the government will succeed in securing a ‘better performance’ from industry. If the basic conditions for the capitalist to invest are present then removing some of the temptations (property speculation, investment overseas), together with more pressure from the government and trade unions will do the trick.

Playing down the extent of the crisis ties in with the even more fundamental assumption that the capitalists will accept the directives of a socialist government. If more government intervention could really lead to a boom in the economy, then the capitalist would stand to gain a great deal in higher profits, as compensation for allowing the government a more active part in directing the economy. Moreover, the distinctly nationalistic flavour about these policies, the idea that Britain’s economic problems can be solved by Britain, rather than seeing them in the context of a crisis for the labour movement in the world as a whole, is also related to the depth of the crisis.

The capitalist class abroad has more freedom of manoeuvre economically and politically to adapt to policies adopted to protect British capital’s interests (e.g. import controls), the less serious is the situation in the world economy. But with the present crisis in the world economy there is no possibility of the capitalists abroad accepting measures to restore the position of British capital at their expense. Much of the detailed criticism of particular aspects of the Alternative Strategy which follows rests on the view, argued for in the first section of this pamphlet, of the deep-seated and international nature of the economic crisis.

But is it really fair to claim that the proposers of the Alternative Strategy play down the depth of the crisis? Calculations like those given above show the drastic fall in the rate of profit in the UK over the last ten years. These figures attempt to measure real profits, that is to exclude the fictitious element arising from inflation, which is counted in the profits announced by the companies.

The CP’s pamphlet, Bury the Social Contract, says that these calculations are a swindle “to relieve the bosses from the major part of taxes as well as to hide the real profits being made”, and that the old conventional methods of accounting show that there has been no fall in profitability. Of course the capitalists will use every means available to reduce the taxes they pay. But the fact that the new methods of accounting have been devised with this in mind does not mean they are a swindle.

It is a gross exaggeration to suggest that the profits crisis is fundamentally a reflection of the power and manipulations of the multinationals – in squeezing out the small firms and then siphoning off their own profits abroad. Without the fall in profitability all the policies of the capitalist class, such as wage cutting, appear simply as evil-minded greed, rather than as something which they are forced to do if their system is to survive.

Expand the Economy

Expanding the economy is an obvious first step to eliminate unemployment. This is how Bury the Social Contract puts it: “There is only one way to expand the economy and that is by an incentive to increase output. The only incentive ... is to ensure a market for the increased output. The only way to ensure a market for the increased output is to increase the demand which is within Britain’s control. That in turn means an end to wage and public spending cuts.”

But this approach only sees one side of the dilemma of the capitalist class – the question of markets – while ignoring the other and equally fundamental, question of profitability. Any policy which increased real wages, while temporarily improving the market situation, would further drive down profits. On the basis of capitalist production – that is production for profit – such gains in employment as would result from higher demand would soon be wiped out by a further rush of closures of factories by firms which could not meet the higher wage bills. The only way this could be avoided is through the government pumping in sufficient cash into the economy and letting the pound slide, so that prices could rise at least as fast as wages and maintain the profitability of production.

The CP calls for price controls to prevent the inflation which would tend to result from an expansion of demand. But to impose rigid and effective price controls in a situation where workers were taking advantage of a temporary upswing and an ending of wage controls to put in for big wage rises would be to drastically worsen profitability. This would eliminate any possibility of the temporary rise of production being translated into a sustainable boom through higher investment. The extra credit would flow into speculation as in Barber’s ill-fated boom of 1972/3. The strategy of the capitalist class sees quite correctly that the contradiction between profitability and markets can only be solved by expanding at the expense of the rest of the capitalist world. It is unacceptable to the labour movement, in terms of reductions in living standards, the unemployment and the social spending cuts involved; its chances of success are negligible given the situation in the world economy and the opposition of the labour movement at home. But the implication drawn by the CP is to opt for a policy which ignores the workings of the capitalist system by asserting that, in a situation of crisis, production and investment can be expanded by driving down profitability further. What the CP and the other proponents of the Alternative Strategy will not face up to is that there is no way to reconcile the interests of the working class and the continuation of production for profit.

Keynesian policies to expand demand provide no solution at all. Obviously all socialists would support the call for a massive programme of public works to soak up unemployment, but the proponents of the Alternative Strategy never face up to the contradictions involved if this is implemented while the economy remains on a capitalist basis.

Import Controls

Superficially the idea of import controls is attractive. A system of licenses for imports (quotas) would reduce the volume of imports of those commodities which could be produced at home. The balance of payments would be improved, and, most important, unemployment reduced as consumers switch to home produced commodities. The great advantage claimed for import controls is that, unlike devaluation, the price of imported commodities is not automatically pushed up.

The first point to be clear about is that import controls would mean that British workers would be faced with higher prices. With their sales limited, foreign capitalists would no longer have any incentive to undercut British firms and they would raise the price of the imports which were allowed in. Not only would workers also be forced to switch to already dearer British goods, but these would also be increased in price as British capitalists would no longer be restrained by foreign competition. To a substantial extent, then, import control is just a variant on the old capitalist theme of the necessity for the working class to pay, with a wage cut, for the “privilege” of maintaining employment.

Moreover if import controls were introduced there is no reason at all to suppose that the capitalists would take advantage of the breathing space afforded them to boost investment and radically improve efficiency. All experience points in the opposite direction. In the ten years or so after the War, British capital was virtually totally protected from foreign competition, both in the home market and in the colonies. Profits were high, credit was available, firms were flush with cash due to investment being held back during the war. Yet even in the late forties the British capitalists were only investing half to two thirds as much as their rivals abroad. Of course Tribune pins its faith in boosting investment and efficiency on the NEB and Planning Agreements. The point being made here is that without effective government control of industry import controls would certainly not lead to a revitalisation of British industry.

Perhaps the most basic question is that of retaliation. If other capitalist countries took similar action against British exports the whole scheme would be ruined as employment and the balance of payments would be hit. Tribune has suggested that capitalists abroad should be just as happy to see their exports to the UK limited by import controls as they would be to see them held down by deflationary policies. But a deflationary policy - cutting workers’ living standards and keeping up unemployment – is the orthodox, and correct in capitalist terms, response to the crisis. Import controls would be seen by foreign capitalists as an attempt to deal with Britain’s problems at their expense.

Their reaction would be all the fiercer since the import controls would have to be concentrated on a relatively narrow range of manufactured commodities, since more raw materials would have to be imported to sustain a higher level of production. The Cambridge Policy Group sees a reduction of imports of manufactures of nearly one quarter as necessary; and since some sorts of machinery cannot be produced in the UK with the present capacity, the degree of restriction on other manufactured goods, such as cars, would have to be sharper still. Such imports come mainly from the major capitalist countries – the EEC, Japan the USA – which are precisely those in the best position to take the most damaging retaliatory action. To label retaliation by major exporting capitalists abroad as based on “spite or ignorance” (Brian Sedgemore, Tribune, August 18, 1978) may not be spiteful but it certainly is ignorant; it ignores the fact that they are bound to protect what are their real interests.

The fact that they have the most to lose from a trade war is irrelevant. They would use their control of international institutions like the IMF, on which a capitalist Britain depends, to do all in their power to prevent the introduction of the controls in the first place.

The experience of the 1964 Labour Government of Temporary Import Surcharge is instructive in this respect. Harold Wilson’s memoirs (p. 35) record the situation less than one month after the measure was introduced: “On the night of Thursday 19 November I had an emergency, almost panic call from Patrick Gordon Walker in Geneva. He needed my clearance for a firm assurance that the 15% import surcharge would be reduced in a matter of months. Otherwise the discussions (with EFTA) would break down and country after country would be likely to retaliate against our trade.”

Within two years Wilson was forced to scrap the surcharge entirely; and the TIS was a feeble measure, calculated to have reduced imports by about £100 million a year, and that at a time when the capitalist world was still enjoying an unprecedented boom. For Labour’s Programme 1976 to say that retaliation did not occur when “Britain imposed import controls in the mid-sixties” is irrelevant because there was no need for retaliation given the ineffectiveness of the measures and the successful pressure to end them.

The depth of the economic crisis, and the competitive nature of the capitalist system, make it inconceivable that the British state could get away without retaliation to the introduction of really tough import controls. If they were introduced as a last resort it would probably tip the balance in the world economy towards widespread protectionism.

Workers abroad whose jobs would be threatened by the controls would be pushed into supporting their bosses in the campaign for retaliation, and the same thing would develop in the UK as export industries met retaliation from import controls abroad. The competitive scramble for tighter import controls, rather than solving the mass unemployment faced by workers in every capitalist country, would just make the situation worse as world trade spiralled downwards, after the pattern of the thirties. So the demand for import controls must be recognised as being nationalistic – an attempt to preserve the interests of the ‘British nation’, workers and capitalist’s alike, and on this basis there would be no possibility of British workers appealing to the labour movement abroad to oppose the retaliatory action of their capitalists.

A class approach, by contrast, sees the only solution to the problems faced by workers in all the capitalist countries in a common struggle against the capitalist system which is the source of these problems. So any measure which sets workers in this country against workers in other countries must be rejected. It weakens the struggle for socialism by strengthening one of the strongest ideological weapons in the hands of the capitalist class – the appeal to workers to make sacrifices in the name of a national interest being threatened by actions of foreigners.

How do proposers of import controls counter these arguments? In an article in Tribune (November 21, 1975) Brian Sedgemore says that “every socialist country in the world, including China, Cuba, Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, uses such controls on a scale undreamed of by the Tribune Group” implying that it is absurd to call them reactionary. But what he fails to understand is that the content of a policy depends on the context in which it is introduced. It is perfectly correct that under a socialist plan of production, such as Militant argues for, a monopoly of foreign trade would be an essential planning tool. But there is every difference between a policy introduced to protect a section of domestic capitalist class (Sedgemore has never proposed the immediate nationalisation of every industry where he wants to see import controls introduced) and its introduction as a necessary part of a socialist plan to control the economy in society’s interests.

On the question of exporting unemployment he says that the purists, “conveniently forget that the alternatives of deflation and devaluation do precisely that”. Sedgemore is perfectly right as to the effects of these policies; but we do not accept, like him, that the only alternatives to import controls are devaluation or deflation (or rather both). These, just like import controls, are both capitalist policies for meeting the crisis at the expense of working class living standards. Socialists should never be forced into arguing for one capitalist solution to the crisis on the basis that it will be less harmful than other capitalist solutions. Opponents of capitalist import controls are not thereby supporting the nineteenth century liberal principle of free trade as Bert Ramelson (Note: of the CP) suggests. Indeed it is symptomatic of the CP’s failure to see beyond capitalist solutions that Ramelson can talk in this way.

Sedgemore says we forget that “it is capitalist countries such as Germany and America which, by their insistence on running balance of payments surpluses despite the colossal rise in oil prices, are exporting unemployment to Britain”. But what an argument for a socialist to use; that we should reply in kind to the capitalist policy of unemployment. Sedgemore says we forget that “the Tribune Group has always excluded the goods of Third World Countries from such controls”. But all that means is that the effect on workers on the advanced countries will be greater (and as we pointed out above the capitalists in those countries are best able to retaliate).

Sedgemore says that “it is a demonstrable truth that reflation behind widespread import controls would lead to such economic growth that world trade would quickly increase”. Here he seems to be arguing for all the major countries to expand behind import controls. But to the extent that the policy worked it would be the reflation which would push up world trade, and not the import controls which would have the opposite effect. Sedgemore gives no analysis whatever of why the major capitalist countries will not reflate, why they are all waiting for an export led boom, why they fear growth substantial enough to push down unemployment. Without an understanding of the real situation in the world economy, such as we tried to give earlier, Sedgemore can only complain about the wrong headedness of the policies of the main capitalist countries.

Finally Sedgemore says that “every argument which can be adduced against import control can be adduced against the control of the movement of capital”. This is quite ridiculous. How can it be argued that controlling the outflow of capital will lead to lower living standards and retaliation costing the jobs of those in export industries? The effects on the British economy of limiting the outflow of capital are much over-rated by many of the left (see below). But controlling the ability of British capital to move funds overseas is at least a fundamentally anti-capitalist measure (and one bitterly opposed by the CBI for example). Limiting imports protects a section of the capitalist class (though it is opposed by the capitalist class as a whole for fear of retaliation).

Neither import controls nor free trade provide a solution to the crisis of British capital; the fact that the capitalist class in Britain may be forced by the growing tide of protectionism, and by its own weakness, to impose import controls is all the more reason why socialists should give no credence to them.

End Sterling’s Role as a Reserve Currency

This proposal has a slightly dated feel since the government is already putting into effect a scheme whereby governments which previously held their reserves in Britain (the sterling balances) are to be given guaranteed bonds. But this does little to deal with the speculation that afflicts sterling periodically.

This also raises the question of controlling the outflow of private capital from the UK. There is no exchange control system imaginable which can determine which overseas payments made by the monopolies are strictly commercial, and which are tied to protecting themselves from fluctuations in the exchange rate. The only way to effectively control such payments would be for these companies to be nationalised.

This was the experience of the Labour Government of 1945–51 which imposed apparently rigid controls, and when firms had many fewer overseas links than now. Lord Balogh, an ardent supporter of exchange controls estimated at the time that there was illegal export of capital of £2,000 million between 1946 and 1948.

It is often suggested that more stringent controls on foreign investment would lead to higher investment in the UK. Of course if the big firms were forced to repatriate all the profits they earn by exploiting workers overseas this would increase what they have available for investment in the UK. But it is wrong to suggest that there would be some more or less automatic increase in the amount they invest in new capacity. Stuart Holland points out that British firms produce twice as much abroad in their subsidiaries as they export, whereas for German and Japanese firms the figure is about one half. But simply reducing the amount which British firms can produce abroad, would not lead them to produce at home. In many cases transport and other costs, or import policies, would make exporting too expensive. And the capitalists will only plough back more in capacity in the UK if they see a profitable market to supply. Rather than additional productive capacity, they always have the alternative of investing in government bonds or other financial assets and this would happen if stiffer controls on capital export were introduced.

Simply preventing the capitalists from doing something, will not automatically cause them to do what the government wants, especially given the political advantage for them in showing the government’s policy to be a failure. Stressing the role of the multinationals in moving capital around tends to divert attention from the basic issues as to why capitalist production in Britain is falling behind. The fact that a government introducing a real socialist plan of production would certainly have to clamp tight controls on movement of funds to prevent capital flights, should not delude anybody into thinking that applying the same type of measure within the context of the capitalist system would have very significant results, in terms of higher investment etc.

Muscle to the National Enterprise Board

The industries nationalised by the Labour government of 1945–51 provided the basic inputs of fuel, steel and power for the private sector. They were mainly unprofitable industries that the capitalist class in Britain was manifestly incapable of reorganising and rationalising into the large production units necessary for efficient operation. The best known example of this is the coal industry, where as early as 1919 the Sankey Commission had recommended nationalisation in the interests of efficiency.

The most important aspect of the plan, in Labour’s 1973 Programme, to use the National Enterprise Board to take over a range of giant manufacturing companies was that they were to be profitable. The original Labour Party Study Group’s proposal was for the N.E.B. to take, within a five year period, a controlling interest in 20–25 companies controlling about one third of the turnover and half the employment of the top 100 manufacturing companies. Labour’s plan for nationalisation has always been in terms of industries or firms which were ‘failing the nation’ (the actual phrase used in the 1951 Programme). The realisation that profitable (or relatively profitable) manufacturing industry was ‘failing the nation’ in terms of investment, jobs etc. marked a definite watershed and one which was distinctly threatening as far as the capitalist class was concerned. The plan for selective nationalisation remains a cornerstone of the Left’s policy, being reiterated for example in Labour’s 1976 Programme in terms of there being publicly owned firms in “each of the key sectors of industry” covering the 32 industries identified by the National Economic Development Council plus industries “whose main customer is nationalised”.

In the shorter term Brian Sedgemore wrote (Tribune, April 2 1976): “The National Enterprise Board might legitimately be expected within the next two years to extend its coverage and/or move into the process plan, instrument systems, petrochemicals, chemicals, ferrous foundry, machine tools, telecommunications and food process plan, instrument systems, petrochemicals, chemicals, continued growth”.

Before examining the political implications of such a programme it is important to look at whether it really represented a viable plan significantly increasing government control of the economy. The theory behind the plan for selective nationalisation of profitable manufacturing firms is most fully spelt out in The Socialist Challenge by Stuart Holland, an economist influential in drawing up the plan.

The vital point in Holland’s analysis is that the group of 25 or so nationalised manufacturing companies would not merely carry out expanded investment programmes of their own. (Tribune has often mentioned £1,000 million per year being invested in this way). They would also exert a “pull effect on other big firms,” based on “oligopoly leadership, or the situation in which one of the new firms at the top end of an industry breaks from the pack and pioneers a new product or technique on a major scale. While the remaining leading firms might otherwise have hung around and delayed introducing a similar project or process, they cannot any longer afford to do so without risk of losing sales, profits and market share to the pioneer firm” (page 185).

Here we have the essence of Holland’s economic case for selective nationalisation – that the extra competition, which the nationalised firms with the expanded investment programmes would represent, would force the majority of large firms left in private hands to invest more. For the competitive pressure proposed by Holland to work, the private firms would have to have profitable markets, which for some reason they were not taking advantage of. This is precisely what they do not have at present. Holland in fact wants the nationalised firms to be used to get more information on costs which would “increase government capacity to levy effective taxation on real profits” (page 201) and to act as price cutters themselves in order to reduce “excessive” profit margins. This of course would simply make the crisis of profitability worse.

The idea that the industrial capitalists are just “hanging around” waiting for more competition to prod them into massive investment programmes is a grotesque misrepresentation of the true situation of British capital over the last decade. Far from there having been insufficient competition, British capitalists have been manifestly unable to meet the growing competition in home and export markets from foreign capitalists. Holland gives no reason why nationalised competitors should spur them on more successfully. A nationalised competitor pouring millions into new plant which is uneconomic, because it is not used to full capacity or because it is too expensive, would not compel the private firms to follow their lead.

If the finance, the markets and the underlying profitability were present, then it would not take the leadership of nationalised firms to persuade the capitalists to invest; their own self interest and pressure from competitors overseas would be sufficient.

The NEB does have the possibility of taking over profitable manufacturing companies. The Regeneration of British Industry (White Paper, August 1974) said: “The NEB will be the instrument by which the Government ensures that the nation’s resources are deployed to the benefit of all, by extending public ownership into profitable manufacturing industry. The Government consider that suitable criteria for the acquisition of a company should include the following: danger of its passing into unacceptable foreign control; and stimulation of competition in a sector where that is weak.”

But even at that stage the potential strength of the NEB had been virtually annihilated by the phrase “holdings in companies ... should be acquired by agreement”. This was far removed from the Study Group proposal for compulsory purchase. The guideline for the NEB published in 1976, stipulated that if the NEB could not get agreement from the directors of the company it wanted to take over (which would never happen if the company was not going bankrupt) it would have to make a bid for the shares in the normal way. The chance of the NEB persuading a majority of share holders, including the financial institutions, to agree to the nationalisation of the firm against the advice of the directors is negligible. It is not simply a question of the NEB having access to “a bottomless private purse” which would mean that “prices would obviously be marked up when the Board arrived on the scene” (Study Group Report). Rather the directors, supported by the CBI, the City etc. would launch a tremendous campaign calling on shareholders to refuse to sell their shares to the government at any price in order to defend free enterprise. Such a campaign, given the interest of the big shareholders, would obviously be successful. No wonder the Economist (February 28 1976) crowed “The NEB’s guideline favour the bosses”.

In the event the NEB, under tycoon Lord Ryder, has been confined to conducting rationalisations of bankrupt or near-bankrupt firms (British Leyland, Ferranti etc. see above) plus a few deals with small firms. With no real power, and a maximum of £1,000 million (which would not buy ICI!) it bears no relation to the original conception.

Why was there such a successful campaign from big business against the proposal of the NEB to take over 20–25 of the largest manufacturing companies? It was never suggested that full compensation should not be paid to shareholders. There was no suggestion that they would compete “unfairly” with their private competitors. Surely the power of the capitalist class in Britain was not threatened by the plan. But the fundamental point is that the nationalisation of any profitable companies is unacceptable to those who own and control industry, simply because of what it represents. The very fact that it would not revitalise the British economy, as the capitalist class must have known very well, that it would not give the government real leverage over the non-nationalised companies, would immediately raise the need for a much more thorough-going programme of nationalisation, which would give the government adequate control over the economy.

Every socialist would support the demand for nationalisation of profitable firms. But those who advocate the type of selective nationalisation outlined here have never explained how they would deal with the fundamental question of how to overcome the opposition of the capitalist class to any measure which seriously threatens to erode their position, while still leaving them with the main levers of economic power.

Public Ownership of the Financial Institutions

The nationalisation of major banks and insurance companies, carried overwhelmingly at Labour’s 1976 Conference, represents a major piece of unfinished business for the Labour movement. The 1931 Party Conference unanimously passed a resolution calling for the nationalisation of the banks and the direction of investment. Banking was the only major sector included for nationalisation in Labour’s 1945 programme which was left in private hands, only the Bank of England being taken over.

The most important proposal of the National Executive’s statement in 1976 was for: “A major publicly-owned stake in the financial system comprising the top seven insurance companies (sufficient to account for 30% of premium income), a merchant bank and the four major private clearing banks” (i.e. Lloyds, Barclays, Midlands, National Westminster).

The implementation of a real socialist plan of production for the economy is inconceivable without government control of the financial system. To produce for need rather than profit requires the whole financial system to be used for mobilising society’s resources wherever they can most usefully be put to work. At the moment the reverse is the case. It is production which is subjected to the search by the financiers for fatter profits. A classic example of this, as the National Executive’s statement made clear, was the property boom of the early seventies. The hysterical chase for super-profits by the City caused a boom in the price of office blocks and diverted much of the resources of the construction industry into quite superfluous buildings. A socialist plan, by contrast, would use the financial system to ensure that the cash was available to finance the undertaking by the construction industry of a huge housebuilding programme, expanded on the basis of the needs of workers and their families.

The weakness of the National Executive’s statement was that it tended to exaggerate what could be achieved simply by taking over the banks. It stressed the low rate of investment in British industry, and argued that the key to success in reaching the target of doubling manufacturing investment “lies in developing a publicly owned stake in the very areas of the financial system where critical lending and investment decisions are made: the banks and the insurance companies.”

But simply channelling more funds in their direction will not cause the capitalists to invest. In their evidence to the Wilson Committee the banks pointed out that Manufacturing industry was borrowing less than one half of what the banks had made available to them. The CBI said that: “The clear conclusion of an overwhelming majority of our members is that it has not been a shortage of external finance [for example bank credit] that has restricted industrial investment but rather a lack of confidence that industry will be able to earn a sufficient return.”

In other words they did not require even more unused borrowing facilities, but rather higher profits. The NEC’s original statement contrasted the lack of government control of finance in the UK with the situation in other major capitalist countries like France, Italy and even Japan. But over the last four years fixed investment has actually fallen or stagnated in all these countries just as in the UK.

Nationalising the banks would in no way give the government the power to force industry to invest. You can take a capitalist to the bank but you cannot force him to borrow if he cannot see a profitable use for the cash.

It is true that the insurance companies hold large volumes of shares, so that taking over the largest seven would give the government big shareholdings in many of the monopolies (the Prudential for example holds more than 1% of the shares of 35 of the biggest 50 companies). But this is nowhere near control, and the rest of the shareholders would certainly prevent government ‘interference’. The situation is quite different from that in Portugal for example, where nationalisation of the banks gave the government control over much of industry, for in Britain the banks lend to industry rather than owning it.

The real conclusion from this is that securing the full use of society’s resources requires nationalisation and planning not only of the financial system, but of industry as well. The two sectors are inextricably linked in the economy and have to be combined in a socialist plan of production.

The TUC-Labour Party statement of July 1978, however, abandons nationalisation of the financial system. It calls for the Bank of England “to act on behalf of the Government in monetary affairs and not as an independent body”; for the Department of Trade and Industry to “take the lead in ensuring proper connection between the financial institutions and the industrial strategy”, both entirely vacuous suggestions while the financial system stays in private hands. It does see “a need to regroup certain institutions notably GIRO and the National Savings Bank so that a new publicly-owned bank can compete on equal terms with the big four clearing banks”. But as a concession to those who voted for the NEC’s Statement this is derisory. Look at the pathetic size of such a bank! Whilst the Clearing Banks in 1976 controlled nearly £24 billion capital, other banks £8½ billion, and Building Societies £33 billion, the National Savings Bank could muster £2 billion and the Giro a mere £176 million. Some competition!

Nationalising the banks, like a number of other elements of the Alternative Strategy, is an essential element of a real socialist programme for transforming the economy, and as such every socialist must support and fight for its inclusion in Labour’s Programme and for its implementation in a socialist fashion. But it is essential not to be misled about what it could achieve within the essentially capitalist framework which the Alternative Strategy accepts – that is with the overwhelming majority of means of production in industry in private hands.

Planning Agreements

The third string to the alternative industrial strategy is the proposal that the government should enter into planning agreements with the major firms. As summarised in Labour’s Programme 1973 the role of planning agreements would include:
“1. Securing up-to-date information of a systematic and continuing basis from all companies and enterprises within the system. This information will concern both past performances and advance programmes – programmes which can be checked later against results. It will cover such areas as investment, prices, product development, marketing, exports and import requirements.
2. Using this information to help the government to identify and achieve its planning objectives, and to plan for the redistribution of resources which will be needed to meet those objectives.
3. Securing the agreement of the firms and enterprises within the system – the written Planning Agreement – that they will help the government to meet certain clearly defined objectives (e.g. a certain number of new jobs in a Development Area) – while leaving the tactics needed to achieve these strategic objectives to the companies and enterprises.
4. Providing for the regular revision of the agreements in the light of experience and progress.
5. Providing a basis for channelling selective government assistance directly to those firms which agree to help meet the nations planning objectives.
6. Providing a systematic basis for making large companies and enterprises accountable for their behaviour, and for bringing into line those which refuse to cooperate – using, where necessary, the extensive powers under the proposed Industry Act as well as the activities of new and existing public enterprises and the powers of public purchasing.
7. Publishing a detailed annual report to the nation on the record of the companies and enterprises in the system, and on their progress – or lack of it – in meeting the nation’s economic objectives.”

So one aspect of the proposed agreements was the requirement on the monopolies to reveal a great deal more information to the government, and to the trade unions concerned. Holland’s list of information to be required includes details of past levels and planned trends of turnover, investment and profits for each main product (information very seldom available in published accounts), trade with subsidiaries abroad, amount of government assistance received, management salaries and all fringe benefits (including private health arrangements, mortgage benefits, stock option schemes), details on wages-by work category and plant, advertising expenditure, main supplying firms and purchasers.

The TUC’s Checklist for Trade Union Representatives included the demand for an inventory of capital equipment in the firm with age specified (Economic Review, 1976). This is just the type of information which socialists have long demanded under the slogan ‘Open the Books’, in order to reveal the manipulation of the capitalists and their incapacity to properly develop production.

But the objective of those who argue for planning agreements is not simply to expose the capitalists, but rather to enable the government to get the firms to carry out policies (notably investment programmes) which they would not otherwise do, i.e. which they consider unprofitable. There is a strong hint in the TUC’s checklist that a role for trade unionists in this type of discussion of management’s plans is to ensure that management is really acting in management’s best interests! How else can one interpret the TUC’s suggestion that union representatives should press companies to set maximum levels of investment overseas, asking “are companies satisfied that investment would not be more worthwhile (author adds - 'profitable presumably') in the UK”. But the general drift of planning agreements is undoubtedly to pressurise firms to do things which they do not consider profitable. Holland says that the monopolies should “be required to reach deep into the kind of funds which they have been siphoning abroad through transfer pricing in meeting their future investment needs in this country” (p. 234).

One important weakness of the system as proposed by Holland (and his is the most comprehensive discussion of how the agreements might work) is that he envisages the government department playing no role in drawing up the programmes of the individual companies, but merely scrutinising them to see whether they conformed With “the government’s overall economic and social objectives” (p. 230). This is a hopeless task unless the government department concerned also has a detailed plan for the particular sector(s) where the firm operates. If the system was to achieve anything it would have to be in terms of forcing individual firms not just to conform with ‘overall objectives’ but rather with a detailed programme for the particular sector, based on an overall plan for the economy as a whole.

But the vital question is how could the government force the individual firms to conform to its requirements. Holland mentions four ways.

He suggests the government could use the nationalised firm in the sector concerned to carry out the programme if a private firm refused. How this is supposed to be an effective threat against a firm which does not consider the project profitable is quite unclear.

He suggests publication of the government’s requirements, but the firm could always counter accusations that it failed to invest enough by pointing out that it did not consider it to be profitable, that it had a duty to its shareholders etc. Though the publicity would obviously be valuable in exposing what the capitalists were failing to do, it is most implausible that simply bad publicity would change their minds.

Finally Holland echoes Labour’s Programme and suggests withholding government financial assistance (including presumably refusing loans from the nationalised banking sector) or in the last resort nationalising the recalcitrant company. Labour’s 1976 programme talks of power under an Industry Act to issue directives to companies “on a wide range of individual matters”, of using price controls (presumably making price increases contingent on investment levels) and of putting in an official trustee to assume “temporary control”.

But as Holland himself says “A government Bill requiring leading private companies to expand would be likely to result in at least widespread non-co-operation, if not a capital strike ...” (p. 186). Any idea that a capital strike would be frustrated by the activities of a small number of nationalised firms (how he does not say, perhaps the capitalists would fear that the nationalised firms would seize their markets?) is wildly unrealistic. The proponents of the Alternative Strategy have given no other explanation for their belief that the capitalists in the vast majority of non-nationalised firms will forego a capital strike and be prepared to accept the direction of the government. And they certainly must believe this, or putting forward the idea that the government can direct the economy via planning agreements would just be a deception. If they believe that sufficient pressure can be brought to bear on the capitalist class to force it to surrender its autonomy, what is the advantage of leaving them in control of the firms at all? Why don’t they put forward a policy for expropriating all the big monopolies which would give a socialist government the “leverage” necessary to introduce real planning?

So far nothing has come of the planning agreements proposal. The Times (February 17, 1977) reported a statement from one major company that “we would sign a planning agreement tomorrow if we could do it our way ... We are not reassured by the way in which the government sees planning agreements and so we will not sign one”. The article speculated that by the end of this year the only companies which will have signed them would all be “seeking abnormal nourishment by the Exchequer or some favoured gain in government policy”. The Economist (November 27, 1976) reported that in its desperation the government “would now be prepared to sign quite meaningless bits of paper if only companies would be prepared to negotiate them”. A year or so later the Under Secretary of State for Industry, Bob Cryer, was bleating “in view of the massive amounts of aid to industry which this government has been giving ... it seems that industry could develop a more co-operative attitude towards planning agreements” (quoted in Tribune, by Jeff Rooker, January 13, 1978).

Despite this Labour’s 1976 Programme reiterates the need for planning agreements in similar terms to previous programmes. Nowhere in the massive document is there any analysis of why these proposals have not yet been implemented by the Labour Government. This is all it has to say on this key issue: “In Labour’s Programme 1973 we argued that our planning strategy must be underpinned by new powers and public enterprise. The Government, we said, must be able to bargain with big companies from a position of strength. In the White Paper, The Regeneration of British Industry, however, the Government based the emphasis of its strategy upon winning the co-operation and confidence of private industry: the planning effort would be on an entirely voluntary basis. We recognise the Government has made some progress on this basis. But we believe the analysis and strategy set out in the 1973 Programme remains the right one for Britain today.”

The proponents of the Alternative Strategy have never made clear why Government was forced to “base the emphasis of its strategy” on submitting to the C.B.I. The attempt to impose the outlines of a socialist plan (production for need rather than profit) on a capitalist economy, which is what the planning agreements amount to, is bound to be hopeless while the capitalists still hold the main levers of economic power.

Price Control and Incomes Policy

Brian Sedgemore says that his alternative strategy will not work without an incomes policy. Now it is obvious that a socialist plan of production would have to include a plan for incomes growth, for the growth of workers’ purchasing power is a central element in such a plan. As we saw above, the “alternative industrial strategy” is designed to give a Labour government the kind of control – to decide investment, production, employment, exports, imports and prices – that a socialist plan would allow, but on the basis of the overwhelming majority of major firms which dominate the economy remaining in private hands. But as argued above we do not believe this ‘as if’ socialist plan is possible, because those who own and control the major monopolies will never consent to it. So it would be quite wrong to call on workers to sacrifice their one weapon to maintain and improve their living standards – their ability to bargain with these self-same monopolists – and to jeopardise the maintenance of the strength and independence of the trade unions.

Brian Sedgemore says in his pamphlet, The How and Why of Socialism: “Are we to go on and agree with the extreme right that planning incomes is incompatible with a free society? And if this is the case how do we view planning generally? Surely the essential point is that planning in whatever sphere it takes place should be democratic – not that planning is wrong. What has been wrong with incomes policies to date is that they have all been used in periods of economic depression to shift resources from wages to profits...” (p. 40).

But it’s not an abstract question of democracy; after all incomes policies have been implemented by “democratically” elected governments, and usually agreed with trade unions. The fundamental point is that under capitalism incomes policies will always have to conform to capitalist logic of maintaining profits, and no tinkering with the system removes that fact. Sedgemore never faces the fact, more of less admitted by John Grahl (Comment, April 29, 1978) that the rate of profit has fallen so low in Britain that the price controls would have to allow profits to rise, rather than fall, if there was any chance of persuading the capitalists to invest.

The idea that in general there are fat monopolistic profits which can be squeezed, while at the same time forcing those self same firms to invest more by means of offering them cheap loans, just does not come to grips with the reality of how the capitalist system operates. How does Sedgemore propose to deal with the strike of capital which would certainly result?

Of course holding down of prices is essential for workers, but whilst the economy is run according to capitalist criteria, price controls inevitably degenerate into the kind of farce of the last year when they are used to ensure huge profit increases. Real supervision of prices, carried out by committees of trade unionists and housewives (Note - a dated formulation retained from the 1979 text) would immediately raise the question of overall control of the economy given the incompatibility of real price controls and capitalist criteria.

Maintenance of Labour’s Social Programmes/Defence Cuts

No socialist could quarrel with these ideas. On the first, Brian Sedgemore quotes the 1976 Cambridge Economic Policy Group Report suggesting that if the Alternative Economic Strategy were adopted there would be the possibility of increasing public spending if full employment could be maintained. ... Given the amount of spare capacity it is quite obvious that returning to full employment would allow an increase in social expenditure. The question is whether the Alternative Strategy adds up to a viable way of achieving it.

On defence cuts socialists will want to know if the ‘alternative industrial policy’ is powerful enough to ensure alternative employment for workers in munitions industries made redundant. It is precisely one of the major advantages of a socialist plan based on real control of the economy that whenever it was necessary to run down a particular industry it would be entirely possible to convert the plants to produce commodities which were needed, or to build new factories to take on workers who leave that industry. But the NEB plus planning agreements would not give that sort of control over society’s resources, because the capitalist class would never permit it.

The 35-hour week

Although not one of the original demands of the Alternative Strategy the 35-hour week has effectively been incorporated into it. Stuart Holland, for example, calls for a national debate, sponsored by the NEC of the Labour Party, on the case for the 35-hour week. In Full Employment (edited by Michael Barratt Brown and others) he says “The 35-hour week could, and should, be stressed to relate to the trend of technological unemployment” (p. 135). This, whilst perfectly correct in particular industries like the Post Office, is misleading in its suggestion that the mass unemployment of recent years is primarily a technological question (see above).

The 35-hour week should not be advanced as a desperate last attempt to hang on to full employment in the face of inexorable technical trends. The justification in terms of excessively long hours of work rather gains extra force from the absurdity of these long hours coexisting with massive unemployment. In 1977 average hours worked by full-time employees were 41.3. If these were cut to 37 (by for example a cut of the ‘normal’ working week to 35, plus a reduction of average overtime from 3 to 2 hours) then at a stroke 10% more jobs would be created, enough to absorb all the unemployed, registered and unregistered.

Whilst every socialist would wholeheartedly support such a reduction of the working week and elimination of unemployment, the vital question posed is of wages. Any suggestion that the 35-hour week should be ‘paid for’ by a corresponding cut in the weekly pay packet is quite unacceptable, particularly in view of the cuts in living standards of recent years. Yet a reduction of say 10% in the number of hours worked weekly would lead to a corresponding increase in costs for the capitalists if the weekly wage was maintained. On a capitalist basis this would involve profits being slashed by at least half. The capitalists would then press for extreme inflationary policies of devaluing the pound and pumping up the money supply in order to allow them to recoup their profits by raising prices. This is exactly what happened in France when under the Popular Front Government of 1936 the French workers won wage increases of 30% and a cut in hours from 48 to 40. Whilst such inflationary policy at the present time would be fraught with dangers for the capitalist in terms of the bitter response it would provoke, and the possibility of hyperinflation developing, they would have no alternative.

Much of the discussion of the 35-hour week is evasive on this issue. John Hughes, in his detailed discussion of many aspects of the 35-hour week (in Full Employment), merely notes that part of the extra costs for the capitalists “is likely to be offset ... by the greater willingness of organised labour – in return for the shorter working week – to settle for more moderate advances in weekly pay” (p. 114). But in the context of continuing inflation “more moderate advances in weekly pay”, amounts to exactly the same thing as a wage cut, however much certain trade union leaders may try to disguise it.

John Hughes says that “the critics of the 35-hour week raise the danger of damage to our comparative cost position, the danger of weakening competitiveness.” His answer to this is for the TUC to press other trade union centres abroad to make the same advance, which, he says, would mean that “the transition to the 35-hour week would not be delayed by employer and government resistance based on fears of adverse effects on the competitive comparative cost position of anyone country” (p. 122). But it is completely misleading to suggest that the prime objection of the capitalists to the reduction in the working week comes from the fact that it would weaken their relative position. This is certainly an argument that each individual capitalist class will use to demonstrate the impossibility of such a demand. But their real objection, which is that their profits would be reduced because they would have less time to force their workers to produce surplus value for them, would remain just as strong if the reduction in the working week was implemented universally.

The CBI has already begun the attack on the 35-hour week by arguing that according to its calculations “a reduction in the standard working week from 40 to 38 would cut employment across the country by 100,000” (Financial Times, July 22, 1978). The answer to this and the wave of propaganda which is developing is not to delay the campaign until the cut in the working week is agreed internationally. Rather the argument must be that if the capitalist system cannot afford a rational system of sharing work and determining the length of the working week then so much more reason for replacing the profit system by a socialist plan of production. In the meantime any firm declaring redundancies on the grounds that it cannot afford the 35-hour week must be nationalised and the jobs preserved under the control of the workers’ organisations.

Industrial Democracy

The most important proposal under the heading of Industrial Democracy in Labour’s Programme for Britain 1976 is that companies employing over 2,000 workers must establish a Main Policy Board of which half the places “would be available for workers’ representatives, elected through the recognised trade union machinery.” This idea is also the main plank of the majority recommendation of the Bullock Committee, though in the watered down form of equal numbers (x) of workers’ and shareholders’ representatives electing an additional number (y) of other members of the Board. Fundamental to such a concept is the idea that the interests of capital and labour can be reconciled, that acceptable compromises can be reached.

The section in Labour’s Programme points out that: “If a company decides on a five-year plan which involves running down its British operations, the first workers know about the plan is usually when the redundancies are announced. All that can be done, through collective bargaining, is to salvage a compensation agreement.” The implication is that with workers having 50% of the votes on the Board, which would decide such things as investment programmes, then an acceptable compromise on a question of closures for example, could be reached.

Lying behind this is the further assumption that with the benefits of advanced warning, and the powers implicit in the NEB and Planning Agreement, that “justified” closures could be made acceptable by the provision of alternative jobs, Stuart Holland writes in his book, “By the same token, it is crucial that workers in those enterprises faced with rationalization should secure advance information on closures if they are to negotiate effectively through their union structures, either for the provision of new jobs in acceptable industries, or for the maintenance of the previous employment where they consider that the management’s reasons for closure are inadequate or based on short-term profit maximization against the longer-term interests of both the workers concerned and the economy at large. In practice, the longer-term view and wider framework of Planning Agreements bargained on the tripartite basis can also benefit management itself. If the closure is considered to be justified, the government should seek advance information from the unions on the proportion of the existing labour force which would freely accept severance and redundancy pay. For the remainder of the labour force, for whom unemployment would be involuntary the government should seek to assure the provision of alternative jobs at comparable levels of pay. The government would be able to make major progress in ensuring the abolition of large-scale redundancies in the economy, provided that new public enterprise is established on a sufficient scale both to provide new jobs directly, and indirectly to lever leading firms in the private sector to cooperate with the specific location of new plant.” (pp. 274/5)

The assumption that capitalism can be planned in the interests of society, that reforms in terms of improved living standards etc. can be guaranteed, not by the free market itself, but by the free market tamed by the N.E.B. and Planning Agreements, would provide an objective basis for the class collaboration implicit these schemes. The objection to the schemes follows from the belief that such extensive clipping of the wings of free enterprise is impossible, as we have argued before.

The capitalists would accept some trade union members on the Board as a way of trying to give them a sense of power, so that they will more readily take a share of responsibility and blame. This is especially clear in the minority report of the businessmen which recommends simply a Supervisory Board with workers represented. But the difficulty of achieving class collaboration in a time of crisis means that such plans would develop into demands for real workers’ management. This makes the capitalist class violently opposed to even the modest Bullock recommendations – one of their representatives on the Committee describing the majority report as leading to “bloody chaos”. But nevertheless such moves should be opposed since they do give the illusion that class collaboration, be it on the basis of much greater planning, is in fact in the interests of workers. They arise from the unwillingness of the advocates of the alternative strategy to put forward a demand for real workers’ control, that is not collaboration with the management, but full supervision of every action the management takes. Brian Sedgemore says that the most important aspect of workers being on company boards is that “they would be able to inject arguments about their interests into the boardroom – an area where such arguments are inadequately represented at the moment.” Again this suggests that class collaboration is feasible, once the workers’ arguments are “adequately represented” no reasonable capitalist could refute them.

Wealth Tax

Labour’s Programme for Britain (1972) pointed to the “gross maldistribution of wealth in Britain today” and said “we shall therefore introduce a wealth tax, consisting of an annual levy on the large concentration of private wealth.” As the government’s Green Paper on the tax explained it (in August 1974) “the fundamental purpose of the wealth tax is to make the distribution of the tax burden accord more closely with taxable capacity and thereby contribute to the creation of a more equitable society in which social divisions characterised by differences of wealth are reduced and in which social and economic power created by the possession of wealth is less concentrated than at present”.

Figures provided by the Royal Commission on the Distribution of Income and Wealth give some indication of present degrees of inequality. In 1972 the top 1% of income receivers got 6% of total pre-tax income and the top 5% got 17%. Nor does taxation at present do much to reduce the share of the best off; as the report says (para. 150) “the effect of all taxes on the distribution is small, with the progressive effect of direct taxes (income tax, insurance contribution) ... largely offset by the regressive nature of indirect taxes (on commodities).” Since so many people have virtually no wealth at all the degree of inequality in this respect is even greater than for incomes. The Royal Commission calculated that in 1974 the top 1% and 5% of the population held roughly one quarter and one half respectively of total personal wealth (Table 49).

Of course the apologists of capitalism point to the fact that there has been some reduction in the degree of inequality (for example the richest 5% probably held around two thirds of total wealth in 1960). But this has been largely due to the spread of ownership of consumer durables, like cars and houses, as workers secured some improvement in their living standards (by 1973 these items accounted for more than one half of personal wealth). The rise in house prices, and fall in share prices, have reduced the value of ordinary shares, which represent control over the key sections of British capital, to not much more than 5% of total personal wealth – a sure indicator of the declining fortunes of industrial capital. But of course shares are decisive for controlling the whole economic system, and they are as unequally distributed as ever – the top 0.6% of wealth owners held 54% of privately held ordinary shares in 1973 and the proportion of land they hold is greater still.

As the Royal Commission’s Second Report shows the proportion of shares held by individuals has fallen from nearly 70% in 1963 to about 50% in 1973, with more and more shares being bought up by pension funds and insurance companies. But it would be quite wrong to see the benefit from these as evenly spread; in 1973 less than one quarter of those with incomes between £1,000 and £2,000 p.a. contributed to occupational pension schemes, whereas 60% of those with incomes above £3,000 p.a. did. In any case the fact that the pension funds and insurance companies control these huge chunks of shares in industrial firms in no way disperses control of the economy in a “democratic” fashion, but if anything concentrates it even further among the handful of directors of the huge industrial and financial companies.

The Green Paper of 1974 proposed a wealth tax with rates beginning at 1% on wealth in excess off £100,000 rising to either 2½% or 5%, according to two alternatives, on wealth in excess of £5 million. It discussed in detail what assets might be included and how they should be valued; how trusts by which the rich have avoided taxation should be dealt with (the Inland Revenue now reckons these to stand at £6,000 million, excluding another £2,500 million in trust for wives); how to deal with problems of small businesses etc. The question was then referred to a Select Committee of the Commons to “hear the views of those directly affected and of anybody else”

The views of those directly affected came in thick and fast, taking up well over one thousand pages. The CBI describes the proposals as “confiscatory” because “the combined burden of income and wealth tax could, after allowing a reasonable margin (!) for living expenses, exceed the net income of the tax payer in a particular year, forcing a sale of assets”; their objection to this method of redistributing wealth is that it would redistribute wealth.

The CBI proposed that income plus wealth tax should not take more than 70% of income (considerably less than the theoretical weight of income tax on the very rich, though they contrive to avoid paying anything like this by taking their income in the form of capital gains). They tried to frighten the Committee with a horror story of how the owner of a business worth £½ million could find himself after 35 years owing more in deferred wealth tax than his business was worth (the Inland Revenue pointed out that with less ludicrous assumptions than the CBI’s he would have £900,000 left after paying the tax!).

The Stock Exchange thought that “abiding damage could be inflicted on the delicate balance of the mixed economy. The Government seeks to increase investment in industry, but it is effectively prohibiting the flow of capital through the Stock Market by the existing and proposed taxation policies.”

In the event the Government yet again bowed to the pressure of big business, and the tax was shelved, though it remains in Labour’s 1976 programme and seems likely to be revived. But in any case it would be wrong to overestimate the significance of the tax as proposed. The Treasury in fact summarised the effects in its own evidence to the Committee: “It is unlikely that the reduction in consumption associated with the tax will be large ... it is not envisaged therefore, that the tax will provide scope for any significant increase in personal consumption (financed by reduced taxation) or for the financing of additional public expenditure (without the need to increase taxation) ... the main effect will be to increase total tax revenue in relation to government expenditure .. this means that over a long period of time the National Debt will fall (or its rate of growth be lessened) as a result of the imposition of the tax.”

What this amounts to is that the tax would not be heavy enough to reduce the consumption of the rich, nor to force them to hand over part of their shares. It would simply reduce the increase in the national debt. Certainly a slower rate of increase of interest payments on the national debt would be an advantage and all socialists would support any measure which reduces the wealth of the rich. But the reduced holdings by the rich of government securities would in no way reduce their domination of the economic system through their ownership of shares; the Labour Party has not been contemplating a wealth tax sufficiently sweeping to force the capitalist class to hand over its shares to the government, and if it did their response to the modest Green Paper proposals would be as nothing to what would follow. In any case if the objective is, as it should be, to remove the power from the owners of industry there is nothing to be said for a really punitive wealth tax, which would take several years to have this effect, as against nationalisation with compensation according to need. This would go to the heart of the matter without trying to make confiscation respectable by doing it via the tax system.


Though we concentrated on the Tribunite version of the Alternative Strategy, it is virtually indistinguishable from other versions – with the significant exception that many who support virtually all of the Tribune demands would reject any control of wages. This goes for example for the programme advocated by the Communist Party for a future Left Labour Government (the British Road to Socialism, Draft 1977, lines 1179–1245). It contains all the Tribune demands, while on wages says “a government carrying out such a progressive programme could be assured that the unions would take this into consideration in forming their wage demands.”

On the central question of capitalist resistance the draft has stern words, but muddled thinking: “The fierce resistance to this policy which would come from the monopolists and bankers at home and abroad would have to be met by mobilising wide popular support for it on the basis of full democratic discussion at every level in society. The right of the democratically elected government to carry out its programme would be firmly maintained. Concentrating the measures of nationalisation on the main monopoly groups would create possibilities for dividing the capitalist class and preventing united capitalist counteraction.”

A programme of nationalising just the “key firms among the top firms which dominate the economy” (how many, 25?) would still leave the “great majority” of top firms in private hands, subject to “drastic controls”. But the idea that this creates a difference of interest between the capitalists singled out for immediate nationalisation, and the rest of the top firms which would simply be subject to ‘drastic control’, is ludicrous. The rest would know that the drastic controls must be the prelude to their nationalisation, and they would be as vigorously opposed to such a programme of selective nationalisation as the firms immediately threatened. Only a programme of nationalisation of all the major monopolies would remove from the capitalist class the crucial levers of economic sabotage which are at present concentrated in their hands. Attempts to play off one section of the capitalist class against another are doomed to failure, since their interests must be fundamentally the same when it is a question of the implementation of a socialist programme.

If one theme runs through the various points of the Alternative Strategy it is that they attempt to implant in a partial fashion aspects of a fully-blooded socialist plan on what would remain fundamentally a capitalist organism. Thus we have:

Alternative Strategy

Socialist Plan
Import Controls
State monopoly of foreign trade
Sterling/Capital Controls
State monopoly of foreign exchange
Nationalisation of banks
State monopoly of credit
Selective Nationalisation/
Planning Agreements
Nationalisation of the Monopolies,
Socialist Plan of production
Industrial democracy
Workers’ Control and Management
Wealth Tax
Expropriation of the Capitalists/
Compensation according to need
Expand the Economy/
Maintain Social Programmes/
Cut Defence/35-hour week
Production for need rather than  profit
Incomes Policy/Price Controls
Planned growth of incomes

As already argued the character of these measures of the Alternative Strategy varies from those which, in general terms at least, represent a limitation on the power of private capital (e.g. nationalisation of the banks) to those which many agree can only be in the interests of big business if instituted while the economy remains on a capitalist basis (e.g. incomes policy).

Socialists should demand that those elements of the Alternative Strategy which are in Labour’s Programmes and which do impinge on capitalists’ freedom should be implemented. But the fundamental point is that even in combination they do not form a coherent strategy for planning the economy. And there is a danger that if put forward in a piecemeal way these demands will form an easy target for the capitalist media. This was shown clearly by the opposition stirred up amongst bank workers to Labour’s ideas of nationalising the banks. But the solution is not to water down the policy – to “public control” over the banks as Brian Sedgemore suggests. But rather to mould them into a coherent and convincing programme, thoroughly argued for and explained.

By attempting to go part of the way towards a socialist programme, this strategy is not ‘transitional’ to such a programme, but is transitional to a tremendous disaster. An attempt simply to implement such a programme would be met by the capitalists using the enormous economic power left in their hands to sabotage the government’s plans. The danger is not just that the ideas of socialism would be discredited in this way, but that the economic chaos which would result would pave the way for a reactionary takeover on the basis of crushing the organisations of the working class, as the Chilean experience makes clear. From this point of view a thorough critical analysis of the alternative strategy, despite its support in the labour movement, does not constitute sectarianism. Rather it is a vitally serious question for all socialists.

The Alternative Strategy is aimed at meeting the problems of redundancies, cuts in living standards, cuts in public spending by means of government policy within the context of a capitalist economy. We do not accept that this is a coherent strategy, but this does not mean that these issues should be ignored until the conditions for implementing a socialist plan have been achieved. On the contrary the struggle for these immediate questions is essential for the interests of the working class. Rather than relying on the Alternative Strategy these interests can only be safeguarded by workers’ own struggles around the slogans of work or full pay; a minimum wage of £70; a 35-hour week; a sliding scale of wages, with the price index to be worked out by trade unionists; a crash programme of public works; open the books. The struggle for these demands by the organisations of the labour movement immediately raises the question of whether workers’ basic requirements can be guaranteed under capitalism, and the corresponding need to generalise these struggles around a programme to transform society. The transformation of society will never be achieved by the wizardry of economic tinkerers. It is a political act of the working class; the need for which will become apparent to broader and broader sections as their struggles over living standards etc. shows the inability of capitalism to provide jobs and a decent wage for all.

Analysing the Alternative Strategy in some detail has already covered, by means of the criticisms made, many of the central ideas of what we consider a real socialist programme. The next section takes up some basic issues about what a socialist plan could achieve and how it would operate.


III. A Socialist Plan of Production

Militant campaigns for a socialist programme summarised in the slogan “Nationalise the 200 monopolies and the banks under workers’ control and management, and with compensation according to proven need”. This is not intended as a blueprint for the establishment of socialism, rather to indicate the indispensable basis for replacing production for profit, by production according to need, for replacing the blind play for market forces with conscious social control.

Nationalisation of the 200 monopolies plus finance

The extent to which a small number of firms dominate the economy can be demonstrated by many different statistics. The 100 largest manufacturing firms are estimated to control nearly one half of manufacturing production, and the largest 200 about 60%. Drawing the net rather wider to include commercial firms (retailers, wholesalers etc.) and property companies, the top 200 companies hold 80% of the assets held by the top 1,000. Of course there are hundreds of smaller companies (turnover less than £13½ million in 1975) which are not included in the top 1,000, so the 80% figure is an overestimate of the share of total assets owned by these companies. Yet the 80% figure is more indicative of the power of the giant companies, and the extent of control that nationalisation of them would give. In fact it manifestly understates the degree of control even for industries where smaller firm predominate. For many of the smaller firms are basically component suppliers to, or retailers for, the giant firms. So the top 200 companies are monopolies, not in the sense that each individually dominates the supply of a particular product (though many do of course), but in the sense that as a group they dominate the economy as a whole and practically every sector of it.

There is nothing magical about the figure of 200; it serves to indicate that just as the giant arms dominate the economy under capitalism, so they form the basis for carrying out a socialist plan. For example the huge car firms effectively determine the operations of the smaller engineering firms supplying components, and the car distributors. The decisions of the great chain stores control numerous small producers of consumer goods (Marks and Spencer’s already has the reputation for exercising this control in a particularly active fashion in the case of many textile suppliers). The giant firms dominate the supply of virtually all the major inputs of fuel: metals, chemicals etc. So planning the operations of the monopolies would force the smaller firms to conform to the requirements of such a plan. There can be hardly one commodity which in whole or part does not pass through the hands of the monopolies. Even fish and chips are cooked with corn oil made by Unilever!

Finally there is control of finance: at the end of 1974 there were 25 financial institutions (excluding insurance companies) each with capital in excess of £500 million, and in total they controlled £72 billion or more than 87½% of the assets of the top 100 financial institutions. The biggest 10 insurance companies also comprise around two thirds of the insurance industry. Nationalisation of the financial giants is necessary to gain control over the credit system which as argued earlier is essential to secure the implementation of plans to expand production and investment.

Obviously, no socialist government would simply nationalise the largest 200 in mechanical fashion; the London Brick Company which lies just outside the 200 is obviously of more central importance to a socialist plan than is the NestlĂ© company or Consolidated Gold Fields (which operates mainly in South Africa). The list of priority companies to be incorporated into a socialist plan would have to be drawn up on the basis of detailed information about the different sectors. This in turn could only be done when full access to the books of the different companies was achieved by the action of the workers. The demand for the nationalisation of the 200 monopolies plus finance indicates the indispensable basis for planning the economy. To attempt this on the basis of nationalising 20–25 companies would be like trying to wag the dog with its tail.

But how would a plan of production actually operate. Is it possible to plan an organism as complex as the British economy?

As Marx pointed out in Capital, the same people who extol the organisational excellence of capitalist factories and businesses and the sophistication of the planning techniques available to the individual capitalist enterprise, also deny the possibility that the same techniques can be applied to the co-ordination of production between the different giant enterprises which dominate the economy. If General Motors is capable of planning of its worldwide operations (according to its own interests of course) why could not a workers’ government in Britain apply the same systems to planning the British economy? General Motors sets production targets for its various different models produced in the various different countries and works out the implications for all its factories making the different mixes of components etc.

In broad terms, exactly the same approach applies to the implementing of a socialist plan of production. The starting point must be the broadest political decisions as to how national production should be divided up between consumption, investment and provision of social services. The implications for individual sectors of industry can be worked out using techniques of input-output analysis which show how the different industries feed into one another. From this follows output targets for the giant enterprises which dominate each of these sectors (this is exactly what did not follow when a similar approach was tried out under the conditions of capitalist competition with George Brown’s 1965 National Plan. Then, after an overall production target for the motor industry was set it was found that each of the giant producers was planning on the basis of increasing its own share of the market – a manifest impossibility of course and a clear example of the futility of trying to impose a plan on the anarchy of capitalist production).

Production requirements for the giant firms would imply orders for all the smaller component suppliers. These production targets also imply labour requirements, volume of imported raw materials required etc. Investment targets would be set for the different industries to ensure a balanced growth of production; from these targets would follow production levels for the industries producing the relevant items of plant and equipment. While it would be wrong to underestimate the problems involved in working out the detailed implications of the plan, it is essentially a technical problem. The development of capitalist production itself, in terms of computers, information systems, has rendered planning possible to a level of sophistication and complexity that could hardly have been dreamed of 40 years ago. In fact the capitalist system has in a sense taken the process of planning a good way itself by the tremendous centralisation of production to a relatively small number of enterprises. Essentially it remains to crown the achievements in technical terms, of the giant capitalist enterprise with a rationally and democratically worked out plan of society’s resources, rather than allowing so much of its productive potential to be wasted by its subjection to the anarchy of the market.

Workers’ Control and Management

Workers’ management of industry refers to the fact that a socialist plan for the economy as a whole, can only be formulated by a workers’ government, that is a government subject to workers’ democracy with all representatives subject to the right of recall by, and paid no more than, those whom they represent.

What is clear from the history of attempts to plan in a socialist fashion are the twin dangers of an over-centralised bureaucracy on the one hand or a lack of central direction essential to planning, on the other. Obviously workers in a particular industry, workers in other industries (as consumers of the industry’s products at home or at work) and representatives of the government (who have the plan for the economy as a whole to implement) all have a role in the democratic management of a particular industry. In individual plants workers’ control means control over the technical specialists, to ensure the implementation of the plan for the plant, and control over the immediate issues of hiring and firing, safety etc. The forms of control would obviously vary from industry to industry depending on the historical traditions of the workers in those industries and how these practices, such as control over hiring and firing evolves as the struggle to dislodge the capitalists develops.

This control would naturally extend to firms not immediately nationalised and would ensure that these firms too fitted into the requirements of the plan through fulfilling their obligations to the State sector.

Compensation Only According to Proven Need

The capitalists accuse the Marxists in the labour movement of wanting to expropriate everything in sight, strewing the country with destitute widows, orphans and old people. Our programme is certainly to remove the vast wealth of the tiny proportion of the population who use it to control society. But the working class would pay compensation to the dispossessed owners on the basis of proven need. They would be as free to earn their living by working, or to draw social security if that was impossible, as anyone else. But small savings, pension rights etc. would be guaranteed by the state to cut through the crude propaganda of the press that the socialists would implement the immediate abolition of all private property. Workers’ control in the factories concerned and in the financial institutions would be essential to prevent evasion by the big capitalists, a flight of capital etc. 

What a Socialist Plan of Production could achieve

The proof of the viability of planning is demonstrated by the experience of Russia, where production grew six and a half times between 1913 and 1965. And this tremendous development of production in Russia has been despite the monstrous mismanagement and waste imposed by the totalitarian rule of the bureaucracy which ever since the mid-1920s has been the source of interminable inefficiencies. The argument that planning inevitably leads to such a bureaucratic degeneration is just assertion, based on a crude extrapolation of the history of the USSR with no attempt to understand the historical circumstances. Ultimately too it is based on contempt for the capacity of workers to maintain democratic control of their society.

Because it is impossible to foresee all the circumstances, it is impossible to draw up a blueprint as to the precise methods of working out and implementing a socialist plan. A proper analysis of socialist planning, concentrating on the wealth of experience accumulated over the last 60 years is beyond the scope of this pamphlet. But a few general indications of the advantages of socialist planning and answers to some common objections may be helpful.

The wastes of capitalism are so pervasive that the following is a sample list:

1. Cost of capitalist competition (duplication of product ranges between different firms where specialisation would be more economical, duplication of research facilities, unnecessary model changes and differentiation of products, advertising etc.)
2. Costs of the capitalist financial system (the stock exchange, a good proportion of the banking system – not all of course; the banking system would become an essential part of the implementation of a socialist plan and workers would require the banking services to be available, but all the speculative activity and a tremendous amount of the duplication of facilities, the existence of numerous banks and building societies in every High Street, could be eliminated).
3. Costs dependent on the antagonistic relations between capital and labour. Any factory or office obviously requires people whose job it is to organise and supervise work, but under capitalism there is a further function (often performed by the same individuals) of maintaining discipline. Under workers’ control this function, as a specialised one would disappear, (as would the whole industrial relations department). It should not be forgotten of course that, modes of decision making within the factory would take time; one of the effects of the drastic shortening of the working week would be that workers would have the possibility of full involvement in the running of their firms. Similarly many of the repressive functions of the state (army, police, law) would cease, at least in part, to be specialised functions, and costs could be drastically reduced.

It is not possible to calculate what resources would be released by the elimination of these costs of capitalism. While some of the benefits would come rapidly others would inevitably take a longer time.

Take the question of duplication of financial services. It would be foolish to immediately implement a huge rationalisation of the banking system as soon as the big banks were nationalised, involving closing thousands of branches. Widespread unemployment of bank staff would result, and the prospect of this would obviously rally this section of the working class against the prospect of a socialist transformation of society. Rather it would be necessary to work out in advance alternative employment for these people (many for example might be required in the local offices of the planning apparatus where their skills and training could be put to good use). The superiority of socialist planning lies precisely in the potential for doing this.

The difficulty of quantifying the extent and timing of the savings involved from the elimination of these wastes should not prevent socialists from stressing their importance. A similar problem of quantification arises in respect of the potential increases in productivity resulting from unleashing the creative ability of the workforce. The stories about workers suggesting improvements to the productive process and ending up with a brass handshake of a few pounds convey a basic truth about capitalist production. But even under what are effectively capitalist relations a recent study of technical change in the coal mining industry found that about one third of innovations patented by the NCB on coal cutting technology came from ideas of those working outside the research departments, and that more than one half of the ideas in 1973/74 came from non-professional groups of workers (i.e. not engineers).

Another cost of capitalism which would be eliminated is the production of luxury goods for the consumption of the capitalist class.

How much could be saved for society by cutting out luxury consumption? It is extraordinarily difficult to calculate this as the statistics for the consumption of the rich just are not available (the figures for their incomes are notoriously deficient, especially in respect of capital gains which is the main way of becoming wealthy; there is no adequate information on what they save rather than consume and there is no overall information about the fringe benefits supplied by their firms). But looking at the figures for total consumption, in relation to what workers, pensioners etc. have available to spend suggests that luxury consumption must be of the order of 5% of national production.

This may seem quite a small figure though it is larger than some other estimates. But one family consuming goods worth £1 million a year ‘only’ consumes 5% as much as do 10,000 families consuming £2,000 a year; there just are not that many extremely rich people – for example in 1973 less than 1 in 1,000 families had post-tax incomes estimated greater than £10,000 a year. The basic point is that the major gains from socialism will be through full utilisation and development or the productive forces, which capitalism prevent, rather than through redistributing what capitalism does produce.

The final and most glaring cost of capitalism is unemployment. As explained at the beginning of this pamphlet the full utilisation of society’s resources would allow a massive increase in production even before the longer-term advantages of a socially rational deployment of resources were realised.

But is there some elementary fallacy in this argument as to the possible increase in production? Where will the money come from? How could a socialist plan be financed? These objections are based on a very common misunderstanding about the role of money. The fundamental point is that commodities are produced by human labour working with machines etc. There is no problem about a socialist government having sufficient money to pay the increased wage bills of the nationalised firms, or for the goods and services consumed directly in the state sector. All it has to do is to print sufficient cash and distribute it where necessary through the banking system. There is no question of this being inflationary as there will be a corresponding increase in production. The extra cash will perform a purely subsidiary role in allowing the different commodities to be sold. In fact a planned expansion is definitely anti-inflationary in that inflation fundamentally reflects shortages of one sort or another.

It would be necessary that the extra wages paid out should not exceed the extra production of wage goods planned. But apart from this there is no question of the “country” being “unable to afford” the extra production potentially available. The whole notion is a piece of capitalist mystification designed to conceal the fact that the reason for the waste of resources under capitalism is that the capitalists will not “afford” to produce more, in the sense that it is not profitable for them to do so. Obviously many goods might be distributed directly rather than by being purchased out of wages. The point is, though, that even money and wages perform a quite different role in the context of planning – that is tools for the social allocation of resources rather than reflections of the anarchy of the market.

But what of the balance of payments? Would there be a problem about selling sufficient exports to pay for necessary imports. The fundamental point is that control over the giant firms means a virtually automatic monopoly over foreign trade, extended to the rest of industry through state control of the banking sector. Import limitation to conserve foreign exchange would serve as one instrument of a socialist plan, rather than bolstering up backward capitalist enterprises.

It may be objected that this would provoke just the retaliation which is claimed to be the basic failing of import controls under capitalism. But the problem of retaliation, and indeed sabotage, from other capitalist countries does not revolve around the extent of limitation of imports or indeed the amount of foreign assets expropriated (26 of the top 200 companies are foreign owned – depending on the particular situation it might be expedient to leave some of them unnationalised but the nationalisation of others would probably be indispensable – for example it would be impossible to implement an effective plan of production for the motor industry while three of the big four companies remain in capitalist hands). Bob Rowthorn says “widespread confiscations, especially of European-owned property, might lead to a crippling trade boycott” (Marxism Today, August 1974) and he advocates the use of British capital’s vast overseas assets to pay off the foreign capitalists who own factories in the UK.

But this fundamentally misses the point that the opposition of world capitalism to a socialist transformation of Britain would not be based on what it stood to lose directly in the form of assets expropriated or export markets curtailed. Rather it would derive from the fear of capitalists abroad that the success of socialism in Britain would act as a beacon to the working class in their own countries. Bearing in mind the crisis in their own countries they would fear expropriation not just of their assets in Britain but of their assets in their home base. This makes any attempt to buy off the capitalists abroad an ultimately futile one, for just the same reasons as attempts to use salami tactics on the capitalists class at home – slicing off bit by bit, meanwhile appealing for support to the rest of the sausage – must be futile.

The only protection against the attempts of world capitalism to sabotage a socialist Britain would lie in solidarity action from the labour movement in the rest of the world. Selling off British owned factories to foreign capitalists would hardly be the type of action designed to secure such solidarity. The only way to ensure solidarity is by a clear call for the rest of the working class on a world scale to support the expropriation of British capital and to follow suit with the expropriation of their own bourgeoisie.

Many people who support the alternative strategy of Tribune say that Militant’s programme is unrealistic in the sense that the majority of people in the labour movement do not accept the need for such a far-reaching transformation of society. This is not surprising given the enormous weight of propaganda against socialism which comes not just from the capitalist press, but from the leaders of the labour movement as well. But if the organisations of the labour movement can be won to the necessity of a thoroughgoing socialist programme this would provide the basis for a tremendous campaign to explain how the everyday problems of unemployment and living standards are caused by capitalism and can only be solved through socialism. It is not in the least unrealistic to believe in the success of such a campaign once the issues are clearly explained. To argue like the CP against an “extensive nationalisation programme” on the grounds that “it would seem to many people like out and out socialism” (Michael Bleaney, Comment, April 15, 1978) betrays a crippling pessimism about the capacity of the labour movement to swing the rest of society behind it.

What would be thoroughly unrealistic would be to suggest that the capitalist class could be dislodged from their dominating economic position simply by winning the argument and securing a parliamentary majority for a socialist programme. It is only necessary to look at the lessons of history, most recently Chile, to be convinced that no ruling class will ever surrender its power without a struggle. But such a mobilisation must be around a coherent and effective programme, not based, as we have argued in the case for the Alternative Strategy, on a failure to appreciate the necessity for definitively depriving the capitalist class of its economic power.