Twenty years ago it was advantageous as well as exciting to be socialist. Trade Unions were the salt of the socialist earth. There was a student movement of great vitality. To do well in student radicalism was to step onto a career escalator. Jack Straw and Charles Clarke became household names while still students.
The Trade Union Leader was held in awe in those times. The Shop Steward was a symbol of raw power and was a prized object in the sexual merry-go-round. And in the relations between the student socialists and the trade union movement it was a case of heroes and hero-worshippers.
Then came the disillusionment, precipitated by the most glorious of all the hero-figures selected for worship by the student statesmen – Arthur Scargill. In Scargill the working class was etherealised. Scargill was the Leninist Idea personified for those student radicals who knew their Lenin and who were aware of the all-too-human tendency of many working-class socialists to be ‘economist’.
In Scargill the student radicals, who were now moving up through the hierarchy of the Labour Party, had a trade union leader after their heart’s desire. But this ideologically perfect trade union leader proved to be a perfect foil for Thatcher. He gave her a new lease of life at the point when her social usefulness was exhausted
Thatcher’s third term broke the heart of student socialism in the Labour Party. It did so at the moment when those who had been student socialists were assuming command in the Party. Ideology collapsed. There was no experience behind the ideology which might have enabled them to reassess the situation on a socialist basis. Their experience was limited to manipulation in the artificial world of student politics. The fall of Scargill brought about vacuums in the heads of the disillusioned worshippers. And, in the world of the late 20th century, ideological vacuums tend to be filled with American ideology.
The move to sever the organic links between the trade union movement and the Labour Party is a move to Americanize the political life of Britain.
It is a move to realise the radical individualist vision of Jeremy Bentham, which British society rejected a hundred and fifty years ago. It is a move in accordance with the discovery twenty-five years ago, by that monstrous organ of student socialism, The New Left Review, that the political life of Britain was distorted by the fact that there had never been a bourgeois revolution here.
Jeremy Bentham was the least human of all British radicals. No other social reformer, bar Lenin, had as much ice in his heart as Bentham. But whereas Lenin’s ideal was of a society organised as an immense factory, Bentham’s ideal was of a society consisting of self-sufficient, atomised individuals, each one absorbed in calculation of his self interest
The Benthamites of the early 19th century, with Francis Place at their head, contributed to social progress by their campaign against the Combination Acts. The repeal of those Acts enabled trade unions to develop freely. But that was not the object of the Benthamites. They believed that workers only tried to form trade unions because there was a law against them. The existence of those laws caused the workers to think that trade unions were advantageous to them. When the Combination Acts were repealed, workers would quickly discover that trade unions were worthless. Each individual would then start tending to his own personal interest as a rational economic man.
According to Benthamite calculations, a repeal of the Combination Acts plus an extension of the franchise would result in a society of atomised and self-sufficient egoists. They believed that collective bodies in society would wither away after the 1832 Reform. But it was Benthamism that withered away. And it withered largely due to the influence of the great Tory humanists, like Wordsworth, Coleridge and Carlyle, and Tory political bosses intent on getting revenge on the factory owners who had supported electoral reform, by themselves supporting social reform.
Benthamism failed in Britain, but it flowered in America. America is capitalism systematically worked out in the social sphere. America lives in ‘enterprise culture’. Its principle is egoism in a framework of law. And, in order that the law should be adequate as a framework, it too operates on the principles of enterprise.
There are no functional social classes in America. There are only rich and poor. Vigorous elements among the poor bend their energies towards making themselves rich, and the rich are always on the go to prevent themselves from becoming poor.
In America, the working class is an economic abstraction. In Britain the working class is a social fact. Successive waves of European immigrants take the idea of a socialist party to America, but the social structure of America is rejective of class parties. Class parties follow naturally from the social structure of Britain. And the trade unions are of the essence of the working class as a social fact.
When the New Left Review said that British society was distorted by the absence of a bourgeois revolution what it meant was that the social life of Britain was not an atomised reflection of market competition. When Tribune, having rejected the Bullock proposals for formalising the class structure of industry by union representation on the boards of directors, went on to declare itself hostile to ‘the corporate state’, the effective political meaning was that it wanted Britain to be Americanized, or Benthamized.
It would be charitable to suppose that New Left Review and Tribune made use of their grand theatrical phrases , without knowing what they meant. But in any case, their activity in the late 1970s fuelled the development of Thatcherism. And Mrs Thatcher has made a valiant attempt during the past eleven years to dissolve the ‘corporate state’ and to make good the absence of a bourgeois revolution. (Her Poll Tax might be regarded as the ultimate measure of bourgeois egalitarianism, according a strict equality to every individual as an atom in the market)
It is now clear that the Thatcherite revolution has failed. British society has not ceased to exist in the form of great collective bodies.
Fay Weldon, in a recent television discussion, expressed apprehension about the rise of an ‘under class’. Thatcherism has had sufficient influence to make it a genuine fear. If Britain is not stabilised through the operation of class politics and class culture, there will inevitably be an extension of a chaotic ‘under class’ – what in those distant times of the 1970s we all knew theoretically as the lumpenproletariat’.
The Labour Party must be preserved as an organic party of the working class – a party with trade union foundations.
This article appeared in May 1990, as a Leading Article in Issue 17 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs. You can find more from the era at https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/.