Left-wing Fear of Corporatism (in 1988)

Working Back to Socialism

by Brendan Clifford

In the late 1970s, Tribune launched a broadside against what it called “Corporatism”. Tribune was then a much more substantial paper than it is now, and it was a forum of opinion for a Labour. Left which was much more coherent than it is now. Tribune’s discovery of Corporatism as the prevailing form of socio-political life in Britain – or of the imminent danger of Corporatism becoming dominant. because it was not clear which was being said – was therefore a matter of significance for the British labour movement

If the greatest danger was from Corporatism, then there was something to be said for Thatcherism. Whatever Thatcher may be. she is certainly not a corporatist. And I recall that during the early years of Thatcherism Brim Sedgemore said just that. Thatcher, he said, had at least saved us from Corporatism.

I thought it was absurd to describe Britain in the 1970s as Corporatist. and I said so in a small circulation magazine. (British socialism was lost in illusion in the 1970s, and one could express views like that only in home-produced magazines.) And I advocated development within the structures which Tribune called Corporatist. but which were in fact the liberal-democratic mode of socialist development.

The word “Corporatism“, used frivolously, had the effect of devaluing all political concepts for the British labour movement And, by raising the bogey of imminent fascism with regard to a development which was the converse of fascist. It enabled the authoritarian capitalist wing of the Tory Party to come to power in the name of liberty.


Corporatism is associated with fascism. The fascist experience in Europe has never been subjected to critical understanding. Because, in its Nazi form, it over-reached itself and came to grief, its conditions of existence have never been made a subject of serious investigation.

Britain discovered in 1945 that it had fought a much better war than it had suspected. The extermination camps were revealed, and that revelation rendered fascism a subject for denunciation rather. than investigation. It became obligatory to describe the rise of fascism as if its central purpose had been the extermination camps and the liquidation of the Jews. To think otherwise was wicked.

But to think thus was to cover a large tract of European experience in the twentieth century with a mental blur. And it made the word fascism an increasingly meaningless term in British political life.

Corporatism and Ireland

Britain never seriously contemplated a corporatist mode of development.  Southern Ireland did.

In Eire in the 1930s the prevailing sentiment was in favour of Corporatism – or Vocationalism, as it was usually called. A Commission was established by the Government to report on how a change to Corporatism might be effected.

Eire’s neutrality in the war was based on a profound ideological neutrality. It was like the donkey equidistant between two equally desirable thistles and unable to decide between them. On the one hand it was Corporatist in sympathy, but on the other hand it was a democratic state and was intent on remaining so.

Political writers in Eire made a critical investigation of continental Corporatism. The home of Corporatism was Italy. But they were of the opinion that Corporatism in Italy was more an ideology than an actual form of social life. The Italian state was too powerful to allow the Corporatist system to develop properly. (It was not that they disapproved of the power of the fascist state in Italy. By and large, they approved of Mussolini as a necessary dictator, but argued that political necessity prevented Corporatism from developing its full potential.)

Corporatism, or Vocationalism, was the organising of society into autonomous corporations, or vocational bodies. Each trade or profession would be a corporate body, and as such it would be a constituent segment of both the economy and the body politic. Each corporation would supply society with something which was necessary to its existence and well-being. It would be internally uniform – workers and employers in the building trade, for example, both being in the Builders’ Corporation. And each corporation would be autonomous to a very considerable extent

The corporate organisation of society would erode the basis of class conflict The system of class-based political parties engaged in perpetual conflict – whether-, in a parliamentary system. for the control of government or, when the parliamentary system broke down, as it was bound to do, for dictatorial state power – was an intolerable disruption of the orderly life of society. The corporate system, by establishing a basic harmony in the component parts of society, would minimise the functions of the state. Representatives of the various corporations would meet to co-ordinate their activities. With class conflict and party conflict eliminated, the adversarial routine of Parliament would wither away, and the representatives of the corporations would easily make sensible arrangements for common affairs.

And of course the requirements of the individual would be seen to by his corporation, and not by the state.

The religious medium

Such was the ideal of the Corporate State, which was the social ideal of Irish nationalism from the 1930s until the early 1960s. It has echoes of Guild Socialism, and of Syndicalism. But there is a further element. which was lacking from Guild Socialism and Syndicalism: the ideological cement of a universally operating Church. The corporations would exist in the medium of a uniform and authoritative religion. The Catholic Church would be universally active in the life of the corporate state. as it was in the life of Europe in the 13th century.

Since the Catholic Church in Eire steadily increased its influence after independence, and steadily whittled away the non-Catholic minority, a democratic transition to the Corporate State was conceivable. It was not attempted because the corporatist development of Europe was largely destroyed by the victory of the Allies in 1945. The report of the Vocational Commission was published· towards the end of the war. It was not implemented because nationalist Ireland did not have. the· moral courage to embark on a corporatist development at a moment when Corporatism was in disgrace in Europe.

The corporatist · ideal was passively retained until the early 1960s. Then it collapsed, when the Vatican, which had succeeded in dominating social life nowhere but in Ireland, made an accommodation with the liberal state and its individualist social welfare arrangements.


The British Left has always been sentimental about Irish nationalism, while understanding absolutely nothing about it and having no real interest in what makes it tick. If Tony Benn and his colleagues had known something of the inner life of the nationalism of which they were such patronising supporters, they might not have written such utter nonsense about Corporatism.

In Arguments for Socialism (1979), Benn wrote that Corporatism

“calls for a disciplined society where the men at the top in government, industry, banking and the unions would sit down together and work out a common approach which it would then become the duty of each leadership group to impose by law upon its own constituency. This school of thought also has very powerful friends in high places throughout the Western world. Indeed it is true to describe it as the consensus view of the old British establishment which, for reasons of prudence rather than any personal preference, believe it is their best recipe for survival.

“However, we should be sceptical about the prospects for corporatism. Admittedly it is a tested and tried system in that modern corporatism greatly resembles the feudalism which preceded Adam Smith’s revolution. The state and the economy are to be run by a new generation of barons who now occupy their modern castles in the office blocks of London and Brussels. But full-blown corporatism too is in the long run incompatible with a free society. A free people are unlikely to swallow for long the claims of the powerful to be wiser than the rest of us, especially if their conclusions are to be imposed from above, and by a strange coincidence are so clearly in the interests of those who now enjoy power.

“Total corporatism to preserve the present balance of the mixed economy is no more likely to be acceptable than would corporatism of the kind that Mussolini and Stalin each imposed to buttress their very different political philosophies. Corporatism would last rather longer than the jungle economics of the monetarists, but neither can offer any real hope of ending the slump. Indeed the danger from a failed corporatism is that it could transform itself into a dictatorship” (pp.145-6).

This is gibberish. And it was because of this gibberish – which was far from being the exclusive property of Tony Benn – that Thatcher was let in.

The danger of failed Corporatism becoming a dictatorship is an absurdity, because Corporatism has only ever had actual existence as the form of social organisation of fascist dictatorship.

And it is ideological and economic absurdity to speak of “corporatism of the kind that Mussolini and Stalin imposed”. It is of the essence of Corporatism that it purports to supersede the conflict of labour and capital by reconciling them in trade organisations. And the socialist criticism of Corporatism was that by compelling capital and labour to organise in the same body it did not reconcile their interests, but suppressed the labour interest. Now, whatever Stalin did, he did not purport to organise society into autonomous corporate bodies in which the interests of labour and capital would be reconciled. Industry was part of the organisation of the state which purported to act in the interests of, if not to represent, the workers, to the complete exclusion of the capitalist interest.

Ideological hysteria

The “Corporatism” attacked by Benn and by Tribune was the procedure of tripartite consultation about economic policy between the Government, the trade unions and the CBI. That procedure was abolished by Thatcher, in the interest of safeguarding “Adam Smith’s revolution”.

The “Corporatism” of the era of Macmillan, Wilson. Heath and Callaghan existed in a medium of free trade union organisation and class-based party conflict

There was no common organisation of workers and employers in which the interests of the two were merged and declared to be reconciled. And there was no hint of suppression of class-based party conflict in an adversarial parliament. All I could see at the time was ideological hysteria. And all I can see with hindsight is ideological hysteria.

There was widespread participation in this hysteria. A group of old fashioned socialists around Callaghan saw that it was hysteria, but they could do nothing about it because their own outlook was separated from that of Benn only by a substratum of historically deposited common sense which they could express only in a handful of banal phrases. So far as realistic radicalism was concerned, they were paralysed by the fact that they had rejected the Bullock proposals on industrial democracy. Labour was therefore at the mercy of a fantasy radicalism deduced from an inadequate rhetoric, and of fantasy fears generated by too much miffing of ideological vapours.

Bevin and Bevan: from reform to rhetoric

British socialism had been spoiled by the Bevin-Attlee leadership. The effective Labour radicalism of the post-war government was entirely Bevinite in origin, but the post- 1951 Labour movement was Bevanite in spirit.

The great reform that goes under the name of Beveridge was conceived by Bevin in the 1920s, and after the 1931 fiasco he harnessed the massive power of the Transport Union to the work of re-making the Labour Party so that his conception might be given shape in the actual world. Bevin, with his secure power base and his grasp of realities, was an immensely tolerant person. He bore Bevan’s carping with good humour, and in the end he made Bevan effective by giving him a plum Department of State to administer. Bevan was briefly transformed from a voluble political propagandist with a slender grasp of political reality into a very able administrator in the great reform enacted by the post-war government.

The political achievement was Bevin’s, but the ideological future fell to Bevan. That is the tragedy of British Labour. It enacted a fundamental social reform, and then promptly maligned the politician who was chiefly responsible for making that reform possible. Bevanite rhetoric came to saturate every corner of the party. As a consequence, when the time came, in the 1970s, for another fundamental reform, it was incapable of taking it in. And the present leader of the party – a Bevanite, naturally – was to the fore in opposing it.

The Bullock proposals would have caused a further “irreversible shift of power” in society, comparable to what happened after 1945. But there was no Bevin and no Attlee to implement them. If there had been, Tony Benn would undoubtedly have been one of the ablest administrators of the reform. But since there were only Bevanites in the leadership, Tony Benn had no useful work of reform to do, so he applied his earnestness to an ideology that couldn’t stand the strain.

Right-wing Bevanism is an absurdity. But right-wing Bevanism is what now commands the Labour Party.

Tony Benn is not a Bevanite, because the hallmark of Bevanism is that it is not in earnest Bevanism is a line of patter. It never took itself entirely in earnest. One suspects that within each Bevanite there was a still small voice always telling him, no matter how thoroughly he appeared to be immersed in the rhetoric, that the world wasn’t really like that at all. How else can one explain the political biographies of Harold Wilson and Michael Foot – and of Bevan himself ?

But Bevanism took itself sufficiently in earnest to prevent any other substantial line of thought from developing.

Productive socialism

A world of difference lies in the one letter which changes Bevin to Bevan. Not least significant is the difference that Bevinism had a productive conception of socialism while in the Bevanite conception socialism was a restrictive practice.

When I first c:mnc to England in the late 1950s I found restrictive practices very refreshing. Twenty years later they had gone so far that I had to confess to myself that I found them burdensome. Not working at work had become more wearisome than working. But even when I enjoyed it, I knew it wasn’t a way socialism could develop.

Why were the Bullock proposals rejected? Because it would have required a productive conception of socialism to implement them. Why were the tripartite consultations on the economy seen as corporatist? Because their object was to get work done more effectively.

Of course, when the Labour Party was in government, its leaders had to be concerned with getting work done. But the leaders of Labour did nothing to develop a productive conception of socialism – except perhaps Wilson, very superficially, in preparation for the 1964 election. And they shared with the entire spectrum of socialism, to the ultra-left fringe., a conception of socialism as a restrictive practice.

Bevin worked out a radically different conception and devised a programme which he put into effect. But he was not a writer, so his conception stayed· in his head.

He expressed himself in speech, and did so very effectively. His speeches are as thoughtful as those of Pitt the Younger. But nobody ever collected them and set them in context, so they could have no effect beyond his lifetime.

The Bevanites, on the other hand, were all too ready with the pen.

Connolly the socialist

There is only one British socialist writer who resembles Bevin, and that is the Scotsman, James Connolly.

Connolly was two people in one: a hard-headed British socialist. and a romantic Irish nationalist who migrated to Dublin in his late twenties but never understood much about that city, and understood nothing at all about the country at large.

The British socialist in him continued to produce interesting articles for the Scottish newspaper of the ILP, Forward. And, at the eleventh hour, the romantic Irish nationalist suddenly woke up, when an Irish Parliament was imminent, and saw that by comparison with the British Parliament it would be a very reactionary institution. There are sound reasons why only a handful of Connolly’s writings have ever been reprinted in the state which he helped to found.

In August 1914, taking the resolutions of the Second International in earnest, Connolly called for a general rebellion of labour in Britain and j’ Europe to prevent the waging of war. And he declared that, even if a civil war of capital against labour involved much loss of life, that would be as nothing compared with the scale of bloodshed in a war between the European states.

Connolly was one of the very few socialist leaders who took that approach. The Liebknecht group on the left of German Social Democracy did likewise.

When the call went unheeded and war began, and it was clear that it was going to be waged in earnest. Connolly declared his support for Germany. He did not do this on the nationalist principle that England’s enemy was Ireland’s friend, but on socialist grounds.

German socialism

War between England and Germany was actually occurring. One or the other of them must win. Socialists should support the more advanced society against the more backward. Socialism was more advanced by far both in the ideas of German politics and the actuality of German social life than it was in England. It was therefore desirable, in the interest of socialism, that Germany should win.

Connolly was aligned with the Liebknecht group in Germany in August 1914. From September 1914 onwards he disregarded both the Liebknecht left of German Social Democracy. which continued to oppose the German war effort, and the Kautsky centre, which equivocated, and aligned itself with the right, which supported the war. He went for’ the best result, and had no concern about where that placed him in the left/right spectrum of labelling.

His paper, The Workers’ Republic, is packed with material on Germany all through 1915 and right up to Easter 1916. It includes extracts from “Socialised Germany”, by Frederic Howe, an American who made a study of German society before the war.

I got hold of Howe’s book, because those extracts were so persuasive, and found the complete book even more persuasive. Howe, who was not a socialist, gives a detailed description of productive socialism developing in a variety of forms, and flexibly interweaving itself with private industry.

And I was left in no doubt that Connolly was absolutely right: the best result of the war from a socialist viewpoint would have been a German victory. British socialism was a very poor thing by comparison at that time – and the only surprising thing is that it subsequently got itself together even for one substantial reform.

Productive socialism developing in conditions of liberty was wiped out by the defeat of Germany and the impositions of the Treaty of Versailles. Germany was put under the heel of the hard-faced businessmen who had done well out of the war. And out of the Versailles conditions it got itself together as Nazism – the worst being a perversion of the best

The socialist alternative to Thatcherism

It is, of course, too late to do anything about the defeat of Germany in the First World War. But it might still be worth taking a closer look at that public enterprise socialism which was capable of flourishing in a liberal political medium.

It is the sort of thing which would have been compelled by circumstance to develop in Britain if the Bullock Report had been implemented. And it is the sort of thing which must at least be seriously aspired to by an influential body of opinion within the Labour movement if there is to be a socialist alternative to Thatcher Toryism.


This article appeared in April 1988, in Issue 6 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  For more from the issue, see https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/magazine-001-to-010/magazine-006/.