Communist critique of leftist support for nationalisation and worker co-ops.
What a sight, 239 miners, relatives and their supporters marching up the hill singing triumphantly (in Welsh), the Internationale and the Red Flag, as Tower Colliery was re-opened under employee ownership’ . . . just as their predecessors had in 1947, when the coal mines were nationalised! Each miner had invested £8,000 of redundancy money and in addition collectively taken on huge additional debts to launch this new venture.
Tyrone O’Sullivan – NUM official, a driving force behind the buyout and now personnel director (no change there really!) said of all this, in confused comment to the press:
‘. . . yesterday was a triumph for a different kind of socialism and for a fight back against old-fashioned state capitalism’
‘. . .this is what I call real nationalisation’
‘Making a profit has never been a problem for socialists. . . here we’ve got equal shares.’
Ann Clwyd, Labour MP, added for good measure:
‘It’s not the Union Jack that’s going to be raised over this pit but the Welsh dragon.’
So there you have it. The ‘new venture’ is ‘real socialism’ not ‘state capitalism’, but also at the same time it is ‘real nationalisation’. It also apparently combines the best spirit of both workers’ internationalism and Welsh nationalism’
One of the miners on the other hand (not one of the new directors) had a more pragmatic view:
‘I don’t really feel I’m an owner of the pit I don’t see myself as a capitalist but as a lucky man who can go back to work at last after nine months.’
Well fair enough – but for how long? At Monktonhall colliery a good deal further along the road with its own employee buyout they’ve just gone on a wildcat strike in a dispute very reminiscent of the old NCB days.
What’s it all about then?
Certainly nationalisation either as part of the so-called ‘mixed economy’ or in its recently deceased full-blown form in Russia and Eastern Europe, has been no friend of the working class. It can as O’Sullivan initially suggested best be described as (one form of) ‘state capitalism’, with all the usual trappings of money, markets, wages, profits and hierarchy.
Of course, O’Sullivan and his ilk fought to save nationalisation despite this, because they had a niche within the old system to protect. The revelation that it was really a load of crap only came after the battle had been lost and he’d got himself a new niche in the workers’ company.
Nationalisation of the coal mines and other key industries in the past had its role to play, but for capitalism not the workers. As Victor Keegan, a supporter of past nationalisation put it:
‘. . . because public ownership provided a humane and efficient umbrella for the rundown of the mines that would have been impossible to achieve with the old owners.’
Well. we’re not sure redundant miners and their families would agree with the ‘humane’ pan of that, but you get the drift.
Apart from anything else, nationalisation in Britain involved generously buying out the old owners, largely with government bonds on which the state continued to pay interest. So profits in the re-structured industry went into the state coffers and then out again to the capitalists the state borrowed from. The new coal industry also continued to provide a secure source of power to the rest of capitalist industry in the postwar period and released capital investment for the reconstruction of other sectors of the economy.
So-called revolutionaries like Militant and the SWP of course saw through this and demanded ‘nationalisation without compensation’. The fact is this would prove disastrous if carried out by an isolated national government, as a result of market isolation and military intervention. In the case of Russia where the state nationalised industry already taken over by the workers or abandoned by its capitalist owners, the party bureaucracy simply substituted itself for the old bosses at the expense of the workers and then sent them off to fight a war on their behalf.
Mr. Blair and the Modernisers
When you think about it, that nice Mr Blair is right – nationalisation is out of date. It served its purpose (for capitalism) in the past, but in a world of major economic power blocs, like the European Union, NAFTA and APEC etc, spanning many countries, and with industry hungry for huge sums of capital investment beyond the scope of nationally-based organisations to provide, nationalisation is a hindrance to the expansion of capital.
There’s another problem though. Nationalisation ( or public ownership, if you prefer) whether by the central or local state (sometimes called municipalisation) was dead useful to capitalism to get its own way, while kidding workers that they were on the way to socialism, or at least a ‘fairer’ society. Tories as much as Labour recognised the value of this. There was pretty much a consensus between them in post-war Britain, backed up by the common assumptions of Keynesian economics philosophy.
Now they need to perform the same sort of trick without nationalisation, which is where the Tories “people’s capitalism’ and the Labour Party’s redefinition of socialism and the debate on Clause 4 come in. We are witnessing the emergence of a new consensus.
The New Fool’s Gold
We now find the Labour Party very interested in promoting employee ownership schemes. For inspiration, they are looking to the widespread systems of co-operative ownership in Europe, particularly in the agricultural sector, the employee ownership of industry in the USA (like TWA and North West Airlines) where some 10, 000 companies are at least partially owned by those who work in them and even to some older established systems in this country like the consumer Co-operative Society and the John Lewis Partnership. Other ideas about worker share options and worker directors are also being explored.
It’s a short step from this to suggesting, as Andrew Bennett MP and the Guardian’s Victor Keegan do that workers’ investment in pension funds and more directly in the likes of British Gas etc. is already well on the way to some new form of social ownership.
Stephen Pollard, head of research for the Fabian Society (didn’t they have something to do with the original clause 4?!) now says that, on paper at least, Britain already has ‘common ownership’ via the Pension and Insurance Fund Industry. Socialism really has come ‘like a thief in the night’ after all! Of course for Daily Mirror pensioners the thief wasn’t ‘socialism’ but Robert Maxwell.
Andrew Bennett, who by the way thinks it’s a mistake to re-write clause 4, has already re-written it in his own mind by referring to ‘. . . shared ownerships’ of the means of production, distribution and exchange’ in line with the new philosophy.
Turning in his Grave
Peter Hain MP, being a bit more of an intellectual, tried his hand at providing a few historical precedents in support of the new approach when he says:
‘An alternative libertarian socialism, embracing figures as diverse as William Morris, Tom Mann, Robert Owen and Noam Chomsky, stresses decentralised control, with decision making in the hands of producers and consumers.’
Though his real reason for opposing nationalisation is the more mundane one of its ‘costing too much.’
Hain obviously isn’t a Radio 4 listener, otherwise he would have heard the serialisation of William Morris‘ ‘News from Nowhere’ in which the view of Socialism as a moneyless, wageless, marketless society of free access is made quite clear. In this story of a futuristic society, the Houses of Parliament are put to good use as a store for manure. So in one sense at least things are the same – the contents of that place still stink!
Ownership and Control
Apparently behind Hain’s support for New Labour’s ideas is his belief that ‘control is as important as ownership’ (in fact he opposes one to the other). But this differentiation only makes sense if ‘ownership’ is perceived in a purely formal or legalistic sense. In the real world, ownership can only be defined in terms of control. Private ownership means exclusive control of something by a private individual, group or section of society to the exclusion of all others.
In Russia for instance. where the state used to own most industry and agriculture, the ‘people’ were legally the owners, but it was the bureaucracy which had exclusive control of the means of production and therefore they who in PRACTICE owned the means of production.
Equally, a workers co-op whilst instituting common ownership amongst its members (if we ignore for the moment the rights of its creditors), is a form of private ownership as against the rest of society.
So long as the relationship between workers co-ops (or any other forms of worker controlled units) is governed by money and the market or indeed by any means of equal EXCHANGE, then so long will people as a whole fail to exert conscious social control over society as a whole. So long as production remains primarily geared towards exchange on the market rather than towards directly satisfying peoples self-expressed needs them ‘common ownership of the means of production and distribution’ will not have been achieved.
Furthermore, in time, the pressures of production for the market inevitably take their toll of any innovative attempts at equality within individual co-ops or other similar set-ups.
As an aside, you’ll note that we don’t talk about common ownership of the ‘means of exchange’ since as you have probably already gathered we consider this to be a totally contradictory statement. You can’t exchange that which is held in common or the products of that held in common.
Thus, Clause 4 is in both theory and practice a statement of state capitalist aims and has nothing to do with socialism in its original sense. Labour’s ‘new’ ideas are a just a mixture of traditional and worker-administered forms of capitalism regulated by the state. Just a different form of state capitalism really!
Just remember, painting America’s TWA airline red didn’t make it part of a communist transport system!
Subversion, No. 16 (Spring 1996)