The abiding image of the 2005 Labour Party conference is not of rousing speeches by the party leaders, nor of the latest episode in the Blair-Brown soap opera. It is of 82-year-old party member and refugee from Nazi persecution, Walter Wolfgang, being forcibly ejected from the hall after shouting “nonsense” at Jack Straw when the latter was pontificating about Iraq. Later, Wolfgang was prevented from re-entering the conference with the Prevention of Terrorism Act being used against him.
Despite an official apology, this incident has led many in the party to lament that Labour under Blair has been hi-jacked by control freaks, that it’s no longer the party it once was. The Guardian (1.10.05) published letters comparing Wolfgang’s treatment to the way Old Labour used to do things. KE Smith of Huddersfield gets quite wistful about it: “Does anyone remember (Harold) Wilson’s way of responding to hecklers? He would let them have their say and then launch an intelligent and pointed reply. Wilson was not only a very witty man but also a profoundly democratic Labour prime minister who avoided being dragged into a misguided US-led war”.
The next letter, however, puts a rather different slant on these Good Old Days. It’s from family members of the old anarchist campaigner, Nicolas Walter:
“There is nothing new in the treatment meted out to Walter Wolfgang, and nothing new in the intolerance shown by New Labour to anti-war protestors. In 1966 Nicolas Walter heckled Harold Wilson during the Labour Party conference in protest at the support given by the UK government to US behaviour in Vietnam. He got as far as shouting ‘hypocrite’ before being bundled out. He was arrested and charged with ‘indecency in church’ – Harold Wilson was speaking in a church, which gave him protection under the 1860 Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Act. The only difference is in the legal justification given for this absurd and heavy-handed suppression of hecklers. In those days, it was even more heavy-handed. Nicolas Walter was imprisoned for two months”.
A timely reminder that The Good Old Days of Labour as a working class and socialist party are no less mythical than the Garden of Eden. If ‘Old Labour’ means the days of Wilson and Callaghan, then it was Old Labour which confronted the striking seamen in 1966, which maintained Britain’s role as loyal lieutenant of US imperialism, not only in Vietnam but all over the globe, and which in 1969 wanted to crush working class resistance through the In Place of Strife proposals. These prefigured Tory legislation on strikes and solidarity action and were only withdrawn when the unions agreed to police workers’ actions more forcefully. It was Old Labour in partnership with the unions that brought in the Social Contract which cut wages and, along with attacks on the public sector, provoked the ‘Winter of Discontent’ of 1979.
But then maybe the real Good Old Days were the 1930s and 1940s, when the Labour Party and especially its left wing led the fight against appeasement, championed anti-fascism, and then, after the defeat of Hitler’s Germany, rewarded the working class by nationalising the mines and the railways and brought in the National Health Service? Wasn’t the Labour party a true socialist party then?
Yes, if you swallow the line that socialism means defending the national interest in imperialist wars, if it means state control of a capitalist economy, if it means ruthlessly suppressing any independent movement of the working class as a threat to the war effort or the post-war reconstruction. Labour in the 1930s and 40s was a crucial asset for the capitalist system. It alone could mobilise workers for a second round of im-perialist butchery by peddling the lie that the only way to oppose Hitlerism was for workers to line up with their own capitalist state. It alone could introduce the post-war ‘reforms’, such as the NHS, which could put the lid on working class discontent after six years of sacrifice. And it alone could bring in the state capitalist measures needed to shore up Britain’s ailing economy during the reconstruction period. This was the ‘true socialist’ party which committed Britain to developing nuclear weapons as part of the US military bloc, which defended the remains perialist butchery by peddling the lie that the only way to oppose Hitlerism was for workers to line up with their own capitalist state. It alone could introduce the post-war ‘reforms’, such as the NHS, which could put the lid on working class discontent after six years of sacrifice. And it alone could bring in the state capitalist measures needed to shore up Britain’s ailing economy during the reconstruction period. This was the ‘true socialist’ party which committed Britain to developing nuclear weapons as part of the US military bloc, which defended the remains of the Empire in Malaysia, Aden and Palestine, and which sent in troops to break strikes by dockers and other workers who were not prepared to tamely accept the demands of post-war austerity.
But what about the adoption of Clause Four in 1918, didn’t that commit the Labour party to socialism, and wasn’t it a terrible betrayal of party principles when it was ditched under New Labour?
This is what a real socialist paper of the time, Sylvia Pankhurst’s Workers’ Dreadnought, had to say about the role of the Labour in the wake of the First World War:
“The social patriotic parties of reform, like the British Labour Party, are everywhere aiding the capitalists to maintain the capitalist system; to prevent it from breaking down under the shock which the Great War has caused it, and the growing influence of the Russian revolution. The bourgeois social patriotic parties, whether they call themselves Labour or Socialist, are everywhere working against the communist revolution, and they are more dangerous to it than the aggressive capitalists because the reforms they seek to introduce may keep the capitalist regime going for some time to come. When the social patriotic parties come into power, they fight to stave off the workers’ revolution with as strong a determination as that displayed by the capitalists, and more effectively, because they understand the methods and tactics and something of the idealism of the working class” (21 February 1920).
‘Social patriotic’ was a term used by revolutionaries at the time to describe those parties or political tendencies which had helped to recruit the working class for the capitalist war of 1914-18, above all by claiming that dying for King and Country was somehow in the interests of socialism and the working class. The Labour Party had played the role of recruiting sergeant with enthusiasm. This was the decisive moment in its passage from the working class to the bourgeoisie, and when a party takes that fateful step, there is no going back. As the Dreadnought said, the social patriots proved this during the revolutionary upheavals that were provoked by the war. In Germany, in 1918-19, the Social Democratic Party openly acted as the bloodhound of the counter-revolution, using the army and proto-fascist gangs to crush workers’ uprisings and assassinate revolutionary militants like Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. In Britain, the Labour Party was faced with massive unrest, but not open revolution. Its response was to try to neutralise the “growing influence of the Russian revolution” by offering a fake socialism which did not call for the destruction of the capitalist state and which did not criticise the fundamentals of capitalism: wage labour and production for the market. Clause Four, calling for the nationalisation of the economy by the existing state, was an ideological sop to the workers, while at the same time proposing nothing more radical than the ‘war socialism’ which the capitalist states had already adopted in order to engage more effectively in the imperialist carnage.
If the Labour Party definitively became an adjunct of the capitalist state in 1914, that doesn’t mean that it had enjoyed a true Golden Age prior to the war. It had been formed during the mid-1900s as the political wing of a trade union machinery that was itself being more and more incorporated into the capitalist system. At a time when the growth of opportunism was becoming a real plague in the international workers’ movement, preparing the ground for the betrayal of 1914, the working class in Britain did not need a new opportunist party, but one that would defend the internationalist and revolutionary principles of socialism. The Russian revolution of 1905, which saw the first workers’ soviets, had shown that a new epoch in the class struggle was dawning. The Labour Party, which did not even claim to be in favour of socialism when it was first formed, was to show itself to be totally incapable of defending the interests of the working class when war and revolution put it to the test.
When it comes to defending the interests of capitalism against the needs of the working class, when it comes to hypocritical apologies for imperialist war, there is nothing new about Blair and Brown’s New Labour. As a party of capital, Labour cannot be pressured or reformed into serving the interests of the working class. Faced with a deepening world economic crisis, Labour will continue to mount savage attacks on working class living standards; faced with the growing threat of imperialist wars, Labour will call on workers to sacrifice themselves on the altar of the national interest. If they are to defend themselves from all these dangers, workers will have to overcome all sentiment and all illusions: the Labour Party is their deadly enemy, and the day will come when they will have to dismantle it along with the rest of the capitalist state.