Workers Hammer No. 230

Spring 2015


Quote of the issue

Old Labour nationalisations

For the reformist left in Britain, the nationalisations of industry that took place under the Labour government elected in 1945 represent a step towards socialism. On the contrary, the nationalisations were intended as a giant bailout of British capitalism. As the oldest imperialist power, Britain’s industry was increasingly unable to compete with its rivals — US, German and Japanese imperialism. The article quoted below, published by the then-Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party in the US, debunks the notion that Labour’s nationalisations had anything to do with socialism.

In the hope that the Labor Party could do something to put Britain’s economic house in order, by means of nationalization, by ousting parasitic privilege and anarchic private enterprise from its grip on British industry, and by modernizing industry, the British people swept Labor into power in 1945. The people were under the illusion first that the Labor Party was a real working class party, hostile to capitalism; and secondly that a mere Parliamentary majority would suffice to ensure the success of Labor’s allegedly “socialist program.” They will have to learn bitterly from experience that these are hopeless illusions. The first lessons, in the shape of economic crisis, cannot long be delayed.

The Labor Party, despite its vast proletarian base, is essentially a bourgeois Party, wedded to the same Imperialist system as its Conservative predecessors. Only it is a party adapted to the pressure of the British working class, in fact a party designed for wholesale class collaboration. For this there was plenty of room in Britain in the past, due to the super-profits drawn from the colonies, a part of which went to bribe the upper privileged layers of the working class....

Let us see how the Labor Party met the threat of the economic crisis. It scratched at the surface of the problem of decaying British industry, and made a pretence of ousting parasitic privilege by its policy of nationalization, which was extended to the coal industry, the transport system, and the Bank of England. But can this make a vital difference? In the first place mere nationalization is no cure-all. Secondly, the policy of nationalization was permitted by the British capitalists only to the extent that it did not endanger their basic interests, but on the contrary served to stabilize private enterprise and profits. The most “difficult,” least profitable, and most “dangerous” sectors of the economy, and these alone, were permitted to be nationalized. The coal industry, for example was despaired of by the capitalists themselves, it had reached such a stage of chaos. It was to the interest of the bourgeoisie to permit the nationalization of this industry, (a) because it left the nation to bear the debts and burdens of this industry; (b) it left capital free to exploit the more profitable sectors of the economy and (c) the difficulties met with in reorganizing this industry might well prejudice the public against nationalization itself. The nationalization of the Bank of England and Transport similarly, do not really prejudice capitalist interests, but safeguard them to a certain extent.

On the other hand, a thorough reorganization of British industry demands not scratching at the surface, but the wholesale expropriation of private enterprise, which the British bourgeoisie will not permit, and the Labor Party has no intention of attempting.

— “The Crisis of British Imperialism”, Fourth International, July-August 1947