1987: The triumph of Thatcherism and the collapse of ‘1945 socialism’

April 15, 2013 at 5:33 pm (AWL, capitalism, capitalist crisis, class, Conseravative Party, elections, From the archives, history, Jim D, labour party, Marxism, socialism, Thatcher, Tory scum, trotskyism, unions, workers)

From the archives:

Following Thatcher’s third election victory in 1987, Workers Liberty magazine carried this editorial (unattributed at the time, but actually written by Sean Matgamna).

Above: Thatcher and sidekick Tebbit triumphant in 1987

No, socialism is not dying!

Labour gained ground slightly during the 1987 British general election campaign — the first time it had done so since 1959. But the Tories still won. The central lesson — Neil Kinnock said it and he was right — is that you don’t win an election in four weeks.

The failure of the Labour leaders to campaign (except against Labour’s own left wing) over the last four years, their terrible political timidity, and their efforts to pull Labour back from its leftism of the early leftism of the early 1980s to bourgeois respectability, meant that Labour started at a disadvantage and on the defensive.

But between 1945 and 1970 Labour always got at least 43% of the vote, even when it lost elections. This time we got only 30.8% — the lowest share, apart from 1983, since 1931. Since 1974 Labour has never scored above 39%. Obviously, there are longer-term problems.

The vainglorious Tory press says that socialism is dying, and that Thatcher’s third term will see it off. They are wrong. There is political decay not of working-class socialism, but of something else which has passed for socialism for too long.

In creating the Labour Party, the British working class went beyond pure and simple trade unionism; but not far beyond it. The Labour Party, in its fundamental politics, has always been no more than trade unionism extended to parliamentary politics. But the trade unions bargain within capitalism on the basis of market relations. They start from the existing relations of labour and capital, and do deals on that basis. They are bourgeois organisations. In periods of depression they may well collude in cuts in workers’ living standards. Essentially the same is true of the Labour Party.

The 1945 Labour government was not a break from that capitalist framework: the fundamentals of the policy of nationalisations and the welfare state were part of a national consensus created under the wartime coalition government. The Labour government left capitalism healthier than it found it.

When Labour returned to office in 1964 it presented itself as the party that would modernise Britain. The big-business magazine ‘The Economist’ , which today is Thatcherite, backed Labour. But Labour’s modernisation effort failed — primarily because of the strength of the working class, which saw off Wilson’s anti-union legislation. Labour turned against its own working-class base. This marked a basic point of decline in Labour’s history.

By the 1960s the long boom which had underpinned a relatively easy consensus in British politics was visibly decaying. Britain’s growth was grievously lagging behind other big capitalist countries. British capitalism needed to reorganise itself, to adjust to the loss of its empire, to replace old and stagnant industries by more modern enterprise, and to deal with its special problem — a too-mighty trade union movement.

The history of the last quarter-century is one of repeated attempts by governments, Tory and Labour, to carry out that restructuring of British capitalism; great struggles by the working class which thwarted them; but — and this is fundamental — a failure by the working class to create its own political alternative; and thus, finally, the victory (to an extent, and for now) of a radical ruling-class alternative, Thatcherism.

British capitalism’s stalemate

The British ruling class has been forced by circumstances to grant a great deal to ‘the political economy of the ruling class’ (to use Karl Marx’s phrase for the Factory Acts restricting child labour). Between 1945 and the 1960s, especially, the labour movement was strong and powerful — but not politically and ideologically strong enough to challenge the rule of the bourgeoisie.

The result was a ‘historical compromise’ — the consolidation of Labour reformism as a transitory historical stop-gap. But reformism is not an alternative to capitalism. It is an aspect of it. The reformist labour movement which builds its welfare state on the foundation of consent from capitalism is building on shifting sands. If the ruling class survives — and by definition it does –then it will strike back. It is striking back.

The historical stalemate- and the Labour Party in its great days was part of the historical stalemate, the modus vivendi — could not last. Capitalism is not benign. The profit mainspring is inhuman and merciless.

The compromise could not and did not remain stable indefinitely. Not only did the capitalists grudge the expenditure on the welfare state and the costs of trade union power. The British working class did not just impose the welfare state in the 1940s and then lapse into silence. From the mid-’50s the rank and file of the British labour movement were in revolt. There was a series of waves of self-asserting industrial militancy through to the mid-’70s. After 1970-1 there was a rash of sit-in strikes and a powerful revolt of the working class that made the Tory government of that day unable to rule.

After Labour returned to office in February 1974, many shop stewards wrote to Labour’s Industry minister Tony Benn, asking him to take over their companies. Those workers wanted a basic change. The British workers’ revolt of the early ’70s was a long drawn-out equivalent of the general strike by ten million French workers in 1968.

But just as the 1968 general strike, having failed to press forward to workers’ power, was inevitably followed by a reflux and a landslide right-wing election victory, so also the workers’ struggles in Britain were bound to end in the capitalists getting their own back — unless the labour movement was able to replace capitalism.

In this whole period British capitalism was in trouble. The ruling class could not do what it wanted because of the strength of the working class. But the working class did not have its own political alternative. Reformism had reached an impasse. Eventually the ruling class offered its own radical alternative — Thatcherism.

The immense class struggles of the ’60s and ’70s ended in defeat, crucially because revolutionaries failed to take the chances to build a revolutionary party in the ’60s, and the militant trade unionists had no political alternative to the Tories except a bourgeois Labour Party. Labour’s decline represents the bill the working class has to pay for the historical crimes of Labourism.

Why Labour couldn’t solve the stalemate

The tragedy of modern British history is that the working class had great strength and power but was politically headless. Workers turned away from the Labour Party in the ’60s and early ’70s, and to industrial action. But such action — short of general strike — couldn’t even hope to provide an alternative to the system. Workers continued to think of trade unionism as an immediate answer to their problems. They still looked to the Labour Party for their political representation, only with decreasing conviction. By the February 1974 election — the point at which the Liberal and Scottish and Welsh nationalist middle ground swelled to seven million votes — working class electoral support for Labour was increasingly grudging. Especially among striking workers there was a real hatred of the trade union leaders —  a hatred Thatcher was to build on.

The tremendous wave of working-class militancy of the early ’70’s led to a government of Harold Wilson and his cronies. Organised labour’s greatest victory led to a Labour government which suppressed rank and file militancy, cut living standards, and under the direction of the IMF began the series of cuts and moves towards privatisation which became known after ’79 as Thatcherism. Labour in power was not even seriously trying to reform capitalism. Industrial militancy declined after mid-1975, with workers perplexed and intimidated by the slump; and political disillusionment grew.

Crisis of socialism

There’s a political crisis of Labour ideology — a crisis of post-1945 socialism.

After World War 2 there were millions of workers radicalised, with a vague perception that they wanted some sort of socialism. But the tread of working-class politics, of Marxism, had been substantially broken by Stalinism and fascism in the ’30s. The radicalised workers were channelled by social-democratic and Stalinist parties into a bureaucratic, statist, nationalist version of socialism.

This ideology decayed during the long capitalist boom and in today’s changed capitalist world no longer has much grip even as a reform ideology. The reformist workers’ parties appear aimless and ineffectual. Workers obviously seek an alternative:; and in Britain and many other countries they have mostly sought alternatives to the right of ‘1945 socialism’.

The crisis of ‘1945 socialism’ is in some ways like the crisis of democracy that followed the full working-out of the French revolution’s programme of ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’ in the 19th century. Equality before the law was not equality. Unequal property gutted legal equality. Marker equality did not lead to social equality when the formal equality of the wage labourer and the capitalist led the wage labourer to sell labour power to the capitalist, who then pocketed the surplus between the cost of maintaining the working class — wages — and the creative increment given to the process of production by the living labour of the worker.

In the socialist movement the assumption was that nationalised property would free the producers from exploitation.  That has been shown to be untrue not only in the Stalinist states, where a bureaucracy ‘owns’ the state and therefore the means of production, but also within the insipid ‘nationalisations’ in Britain.

Wholesale stratification has not liberated the working class from wage-slavery — not in Russia, not in the Third World, nor in post-1945 Britain.

Now the Marxist, working-class socialist tradition always said explicitly that nationalisation was not by itself socialism, or liberation from wage slavery.

“State ownership and control”, wrote James Connolly, “is not necessarily socialist — if it were, then the army and navy, the police, the judges, the gaolers, the informers and the hangmen would all be socialist functionaries as they are all state officials — but the ownership by the state of all the lands and material for labour, combined with the cooperative control by the workers of such land and materials, would be socialist…To the cry of the middle class reformers, ‘Make this or that the property of the government’, we reply — ‘yes, in proportion as the workers are ready to make the government their property’.”

Leon Trotsky wrote: “State property becomes the property of ‘the whole people’ only to the degree that social privilege and differentiation disappear, and therewith the necessity of the state. In other words: state property is converted into socialist property in proportion as it ceases to be state property”. And in the ‘Transitional Programme’: “The difference between [our] demands and the muddle-headed reformist slogan of ‘nationalisation’ lies in the following: (1) we reject indemnification; (2) we warn the masses against demagogues of the Popular Front who, giving lip-service to nationalisation, remain in reality agents of capital; (3) we call upon the masses to rely only upon their own revolutionary strength; (4) we link up the question of expropriation with that of seizure of power by the workers and farmers”.

Nevertheless, for a long time, socialism meant nationalisation. For socialists nationalisation could not be the end, but only one means to an end. But it came to embody socialism. What is worse — as we shall see — is that socialism was chopped down to a bureaucratic, statist, nationalist programme in this way not only for reformists and the Stalinists, but also for many revolutionaries. They distinguished themselves from the mainstream labour leaders  by attacking them for not being hard or militant enough in their pursuit of ‘1945 socialism’.

Crisis of Trotskyism 

There were, after all, socialists who knew the ideas of Connolly and Trotsky. Why did they not enable the British labour movement to overcome the crisis? Why wasn’t the bureaucratic, statist, nationalist ‘1945 socialism’ replaced by genuine working class socialism , rather than by cynicism, confusion, and numbers of workers shifting support from Labour to the Alliance?

Part of the problem is that many of the Trotskyists had let such ideas as Connolly’s and Trotsky’s grow dusty on the shelves, while in today’s politics they distinguished themselves merely as the most militant fighters for the goals of ‘1945 socialism’. Such an approach meant sectarianism in the form of rigid organisational self-demarcation (or even self-isolation) and a routine of denunciation, combined with lack of the necessary fundamental ideological self-demarcation.

One of the main ideas in the political lexicon of Trotskyism is that of the crisis of leadership — the corruption of the established mass Social Democratic and Stalinist parties as the key to the failure of the working class to make a revolution.. For Trotskyists this thesis was the alternative to concluding from the defeats of the working class in the 1920s and 1930s that there was something fundamentally lacking in the working class as a revolutionary class. What was needed, he argued, was a truly revolutionary party to fight bourgeois ideas and help the working class establish its political independence as the prelude to the working class conquest of power.

The arresting fact about modern British history is that the crisis of leadership in Britain has essentially been a crisis of the ‘Trotskyist’ movement.

The Stalinist movement was small and, after 1956, discredited. The social democracy was in power after 1964 and decaying. Trotskyism had been weak when the working class upsurge first got underway in the mid-’50s. Yet Britain offered Trotskyism immense opportunities once the Communist Party began to lose its verve and political certainty — better, perhaps, than in any other country.

The old forces of Trotskyism failed. In 1958 the main Trotskyist group — the SLL led by Gerry Healy — could get 500 British workers, ma majority of them shop stewards, to an ‘assembly of labour’. The SLL was then, and until the mid-’60s, a serious and more or less rational movement. In the 1960s they could have built a militant Trotskyist leadership with substantial roots in the trade unions and the Labour Party. Combining the two fronts of the labour movement, they could have recruited the best and most serious shop stewards in the subsequent period and helped organise the left in the Labour Party.

Instead of the left in the Labour Party collapsing and fading away between 1966 and 1970, a serious fight could have been mounted against the Wilson government. At the very least, Harold Wilson in 1974 would have faced a big challenge from a substantial and respected left wing embedded in the labour movement. Instead of the disillusion and demoralisation that actually took place, the late ’70s could have seen that left wing grow. The left revolt in the Labour Party from 1979 to 1981 could have taken place at a vastly higher political level, and with much deeper roots in the trade unions and the working class.

It didn’t happen. The ‘Trotskyist’ movement went off after 1964 to build a ‘revolutionary party’ in the wilderness, organisationally counterposed to the labour movement but with little real independence from the mainstream. Other Trotskyists, like the SWP, later repeated the SLL’s errors.

That failure shaped the starting point for Thatcherism. Combined with eight years of slump and many working class defeats — especially the defeat of the miners’ strike of 1984-5 — it set the background for the 1987 election.

Labour’s 1987 campaign

Against that background, what was the campaign like?

It is tempting for socialists to scoff at Labour’s election campaign. And easy too: John F Kinnock runs for president of Britain Inc. Labour preaches moderation and reconciliation in the name of a working class living with the jackboot of the Tory class-warriors on its neck. Labour’s leaders appear on TV — an election broadcast they felt proud enough of to put out twice — and beg for votes for Neil Kinnock by showing him bitterly denouncing the misdemeanours of … the Liverpool Labour Party.

All of that is true: but it misses what was new in the month before 11 June, the vigorous and passionate anti-Toryism of Labour’s campaign.

When was it last seen in an election that the leader of the Labour Party indicted the ruling class as Kinnock did? He used the language of ‘One-Nation’-ism, but the message was a message of a fightback by the working class and the oppressed. He used the language of moderation, and for sure Labour’s proposals and programme were moderate enough, but there was nothing ‘moderate’ about the bitter indictment of Toryism which Kinnock delivered. Neil Kinnock spoke for every class-conscious worker and for all the victims of Thatcher’s ‘reinvigorated’ capitalism.

Even the highly personalised first (and repeated) election broadcast — so easy to mock — in which Kinnock’s relatives told us what a nice fellow he was, was more than just a chocolate-box advertisement for the leader of the Labour Party. It used the focus on Kinnock’s personality to get across a radical message.

Kinnock was shown saying that he was the first Kinnock in a thousand years to go to college, and then asking ‘Were the others all stupid, miners and poets as they were?’ That was no empty ‘beauty contest’ broadcast. It was a recapitulation of the experience of the British working class.

Now the political content of Labour’s campaign had nothing to do with socialism — the replacement of the present system of wage slavery and state oppression based on the private ownership of the means of production. The sort of message Kinnock put across (including his positive alternative) was delivered 100 years ago by Liberals and Radicals.

During the long decades when Labour and Tory parties alike subscribed to the post-1940 (or ’45) consensus, the ‘anti-Tory rhetoric’ which the labour movement inherited from its Radical pre-history became increasingly hollowed out and devoid of content. It was, as our paper Workers Action (which was, of course, vehemently for a Labour victory) put it in the 1979 election, the refuge alike of Labour’s right wing  and of sectarian socialists like the SWP.

But the Thatcher revolution in the Tory party has given a renewed meaning to the hollowed anti-Toryism of the labour movement. The Tories are now different in a way they were not for decades before 1979. The Labour Party’s counter-proposal to the Thatcher Tories was old-fashioned and inadequate. But in its own way Labour brought class into a British election more clearly — if not explicitly — than any election for decades. It was a clear clash, if not between capitalism and socialism, at least between raw, harsh capitalism and capitalism tempered by ‘the political economy of the working class’.

Where now?

Marxists in the British labour movement need to rediscover and explain the programme of the self-liberation of the working class — of socialism as Marx, Engels, Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky understood it. At the same time we must recognise that the working class learns mainly in struggle, not through propaganda, and we must start from where we are.

We should fight for the labour movement to continue the anti-Tory crusade started in the election period — for local Labour parties to go ‘back to basics’, campaigning on the streets and door-to-door against health cuts, education cuts, rent rises housing cuts, and the selling-off of council estates. Trade unions should develop direct action to resist the Tories and the bosses wherever possible.

Socialism is not dying. In Britain it has not been tried in a mass movement. The working class is changing, but it is not dead or dying. Thatcher’s third term will not go through without resistance and struggles. And in those struggles workers can learn and make their way to working class socialist politics.

The Thatcher years are a tragic time for millions of people — the homeless, the unemployed, the young, the old, the sick. Yet nobody with a realistic grasp of what capitalism is as a system could have expected the post-1945 settlement to continue indefinitely. Either the bourgeoisie or the working class must rule — and the working class cannot rule, and serve its own interests, by fiddling with the capitalist system. The savage and inhuman capitalist counter-attack was inevitable.

And the collapse of the social compromise of the 1950s and ’60s under the onslaught of the Tories is forcing the working class to rethink politically. The labour and socialist movement is being reshaped. The outcome of the British general election of 1987 was a tragedy. But we can still turn it into the prelude to the triumph of the labour movement.


  1. Roger McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

    How can anyone read that blithe final sentence from 26 ever more dismal and hopeless years ago without simultaneously wanting to laugh and scream?

    To write about the prelude to the triumph of the labour movement in the year we suffered another historic defeat and that the ratchet was pushed further to the right and in the same year that Kinnock used the authority he had bizarrely acquired through being defeated in the polls to begin the real dismantling of Labour Party democracy through the Labour Listens and Policy Review Programmes which formed the real ultimate basis for New Labour and Blairism.

    History sucks.

  2. Jim Denham said,

    Be fair, Roger: it was optimism of the will.

    • Roger McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

      And in 1987 it all made sense – we’d suffered defeats but there was still a left and whatever one thought of it still a Soviet bloc.

      And that Sean and you can still hold within you that optimism makes you better and stronger men than me.

      But to read such pieces now sat in the ruins of what we once built and with our enemies everywhere victorious and preparing their final campaigns of annihilation is to me just painful.

  3. Daniel young said,

    Thatcher was profits wet dream,and did not their sheets stain.

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