By Roland Tretchet
This magazine makes no apology for repeating certain basic truths.
One truth that certainly bears repetition is that the idea that Stalinism equals socialism is pereposturous, the great lie of the twentieth century. This lie, more than anything else, has provided the ideological underpinning for Blair’s assault on Clause Four. It is the one thing that all liberal politicians, police dictators and media pundits can agree upon.
Yet, if we take a step back and survey the full course of the evolution of the socialist and labour movement over the last 150 years, then we can see that the “great lie” is merely the modern form of an even older idea.
It is simply an intellectually acceptable way of telling the working class — the great bulk of humanity — that it must remain an exploited class forever. It’s a less direct and “provocative” way of saying that if any improvement is to come in the lot of the working class, this will not be through its own self-liberating activity but by the endeavour of a civilised and educated elite. Once we grasp this, then it throws a great amount of light on Blair’s campaign against Clause Four.
There is a direct line of intellectual continuity from the Webbs and Bernard Shaw and other leading Fabians, through high Stalinism — which Fabians like Shaw and the Webbs supported — to the bogus “New Times” of Marxism Today and Tony Blair’s “New” Clause Four. This is simply a warmed over re-hash of ex- Eurocommunist twaddle.
Though Sidney Webb wanted to nationalise everything and Blair nothing, for both men politics is and was about bringing “change” from above. Both are bureaucrats. But whereas Webb was a bureaucrat of state planning, Blair is a bureaucrat of the market. As Jack Straw likes to point out, if he’d lived long enough Webb would have supported Blair’s abolition of Clause Four. Straw and others have failed to point out that if young Blair had only been born early enough, he would no doubt have shared Webb’s high opinion of Stalin.
Fabians — and Blair is a Fabian (a Thatcherite Fabian but a Fabian none the less) if he is anything — must be understood not only from the point of view of what they are for but what they are against.
They are against the two central ideas of revolutionary Marxism that a) the working class can liberate itself and overthrow the old order and b) in doing so it can reshape both politics and economics, laying the basis for a real democracy of the producers and consumers.
Apart from these two negative dogmas Fabianism and all other forms of elitist “socialism from above” can be moulded into a multitude of political forms in response to the prevailing bourgeois intellectual consensus.
That is why Blair described his new clause as an attempt to “free Labour from the influence of Marxist intellectual analysis”.
This is a classically Fabian theme. As Hal Draper explained:
“The Fabians (more accurately, the Webbians) are, in the history of the socialist idea, that modern socialist current which developed in most complete divorcement from Marxism, the one most alien to Marxism. It was almost chemically-pure social-democratic reformism unalloyed, particularly before the rise of the mass Labour and socialist movement in Britain, which it did not want and did not help to build (despite a common myth to the contrary).
“The Fabians, deliberately middle-class in composition and appeal, were not for building any mass movement at all, least of all a Fabian one. They thought of themselves as a small elite of brain-trusters who would permeate the existing institutions of society, influence the real leaders in all spheres Tory or Liberal, and guide social development toward its collectivist goal with the “inevitability of gradualness.” Since their conception of socialism was purely in terms of state intervention (national or municipal), and their theory told them that capitalism itself was being collectivised apace every day and had to move in this direction, their function was simply to hasten the process. The Fabian Society was designed in 1884 to be pilot-fish to a shark: at first the shark was the Liberal Party; but when the permeation of Liberalism failed miserably, and labour finally organised its own class party despite the Fabians, the pilot-fish simply reattached itself.
“There is perhaps no other socialist tendency which so systematically and even consciously worked out its theory as a Socialism-from-Above. The nature of this movement was early recognised, though it was later obscured by the merging of Fabianism into the body of Labour reformism. The leading Christian Socialist inside the Fabian Society once attacked Webb as a “a bureaucratic Collectivist” (perhaps the first use of that term). Hilaire Belloc’s once-famous book of 1912 on The Servile State was largely triggered by the Webb type whose “collectivist ideal” was basically bureaucratic. GDH Cole reminisced: “The Webbs, in those days, used to be fond of saying that everyone who was active in politics was either an ‘A’ or a ‘B’ — an anarchist or bureaucrat — and that they were ‘B’s’…”
“These characterisations scarcely convey the full flavour of the Webbian collectivism that was Fabianism. It was through-and-through managerial, technocratic, elitist, authoritarian, “plannist”. Webb was fond of the term “wire-pulling”, using it almost as a synonym for politics. A Fabian publication wrote that they wished to be “the Jesuits of Socialism.” Their gospel was Order and Efficiency. The people, who should be treated kindly, were fit to be run only by competent experts. Class struggle, revolution and popular turbulence were insanity. In Fabianism and the Empire imperialism was praised and embraced. If ever the socialist movement developed its own bureaucratic collectivism, this was it.
“It may be thought that Socialism is essentially a movement from below, a class movement,” wrote a Fabian spokesman, Sidney Ball, to disabuse the reader of this idea; but now socialists “approach the problem from the scientific rather than the popular view; they are middle-class theorists,” he boasted, going on to explain that there is “a distinct rupture between the Socialism of the street and the Socialism of the chair.”
“The sequel is also known, though often glossed over. While Fabianism as a special tendency petered out into the larger stream of Labour Party reformism by 1918, the leading Fabians themselves went in another direction. Both Sidney and Beatrice Webb as well as Bernard Shaw — the top trio — became principled supporters of Stalinist totalitarianism in the 1930s. Even earlier, Shaw, who thought socialism needed a Superman, had found more than one. In turn he embraced Mussolini and Hitler as benevolent despots to hand “socialism” down to the Yahoos, and he was disappointed only that they did not actually abolish capitalism. In 1931 Shaw disclosed, after a visit to Russia, that the Stalin regime was really Fabianism in practice. The Webbs followed Shaw to Moscow, and found God. In their Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation, they proved (right out of Moscow’s own documents and Stalin’s own claims, industriously researched) that Russia is the greatest democracy in the world; Stalin is no dictator; equality reigns for all; the one-party dictatorship is needed; the Communist Party is a thoroughly democratic elite bringing civilisation to the Slavs and Mongols (but not Englishmen); political democracy has failed in the West anyway, and there is no reason why political parties should survive in our age…
“They staunchly supported Stalin through the Moscow purge trials and the Hitler-Stalin Pact without a visible qualm, and died more uncritical pro-Stalinists than can now be found on the Politburo. As Shaw has explained, the Webbs had nothing but scorn for the Russian Revolution itself, but “The Webbs waited until the wreckage and ruin of the change was ended, it mistakes remedied, and the Communist State fairly launched.” That is, they waited until the revolutionary masses had been straight jacketed, the leaders of the revolution cashiered, the efficient tranquillity of dictatorship had settled on the scene, the counter-revolution firmly established; and then they came along to pronounce it the Ideal.
“Was this really a gigantic misunderstanding, some incomprehensible blunder? Or were they not right in thinking that this indeed was the “socialism” that matched their ideology, give or take a little blood? The swing of Fabianism from middle-class permeation to Stalinism was the swing of a door that was hinged on Socialism-from-Above.” (Two Souls of Socialism, 1965)
That door has swung back with the collapse of Stalinism for socialists from above.
The reasoning is simple:
1) Democratic working class self rule is impossible.
2) The old style state planning has failed.
3) The capitalist market system is the only alternative.
The future of “socialism” for today’s Webb’s consists in making the market work in a more efficient, dynamic and rigorous way.
What is interesting here is the symbiotic relationship between the decay of Stalinism and the emergence of “new” Labour. All the key themes of Blairism can be found in that odious journal of disillusioned ex-Stalinists, Marxism Today.
In 1991 they produced a manifesto for the public sector which not only outlined ways in which BR could be sold off and road tolls imposed, but worshipped CCT and the internal market as ways of making the NHS and local government efficient.
“Competitive tendering, tighter regulation and innovative approaches to financing, may help the public sector to become more efficient at delivering value for money. However they will do little to foster innovation, creativity and improvements in the quality of services. Funding should be clearly earmarked for research and development. There needs to be a new deal for workers in the public sector. The dedication and professionalism of nurses and teachers needs to be recognised in their pay, status and training. They must be able to concentrate on what they are good at — teaching and nursing rather than managing. This new deal has to be matched by a determination to break down the aspects of trade union culture which still persist in parts of the public sector — especially in local government and particularly the defence of out-dated restrictive practices and industrial relations procedures.”
Little Mr. Blair gets all his ideas from these folk.
They’re very clever.
Martin Jacques former editor of Marxism Today and now deputy editor of the Independent sets the tone with editorials against striking teachers “Please sir, stop whinging”, and his decision to popularise the banalities of Amatai Etzioni’s “communitarianism”.
He is backed up by others like ex-YCLer Martin Kettle, the Guardian columnist and effective political editor — who comes from an old CP family.
The Guardian’s coverage of the Clause Four debate has been reminiscent of Pravda at its worst, while his own personal column has advocated a return to “New Liberalism” by Blair. As “New Liberalism’s” heyday was in the first decade of the 20th century, this reveals precisely how modern the modernisers really are. Back to the future!
And Blair’s worship of the bureaucratised market in the NHS, local government, the public utilities and elsewhere tells us just how “dynamic” this market really is if it has to march forward on the crutches of bureaucracy.