cooperatives

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Book on Revolutionary Trade Unionism, Fascism and the Corporative State

David D. Roberts, Syndicalist Tradition & Italian Fascism (University of North Carolina Press, 1979).

Syndicalism is a form of revolutionary socialism that seeks to overthrow the liberal state and replace it with a society based on the trade unions in which they run industry. It was particularly strong in France, and played a major role in Catalonia and the struggle against Franco during the Spanish Civil War. It has also been a strand in the British labour movement, and produced a peculiar British form, Guild Socialism, whose leaders included the great socialist writer and former Fabian, G.D.H. Cole.

Fascism Mixture of Different Groups

Fascism was a strange, heterogenous mixture of different, and often conflicting groups. These included former syndicalists, radicalised veterans from the First World War, ultra-conservative Nationalists and the Futurists, an aggressive modern artistic movement that celebrated war, speed, violence, masculinity, airplanes, cars and the new machine age. Some of these groups shared roughly the same ideas. The war veterans were deeply impressed with the corporative constitution drafted by Alceste de Ambris for D’Annunzio’s brief regime in Fiume, the Carta de Carnaro. Superficially, the Fascist syndicalists shared the same goal of creating a corporate state to govern industrial relations and run industry. However, they approached this from very different directions. The Nationalists, led by Alfredo Rocco, were ultra-Conservative businessmen, who attacked liberal democracy because of the corruption involved in Italian politics. At the same time they feared the power of the organised working class. As Italy modernised, it underwent a wave of strikes. In response, Rocco recommended that the state should take over the trade unions, using them as its organ to discipline the workers, keep the masses in their place while training them to perform their functions efficiently in the new, industrial Italy. The syndicalists, on the other hand, wanted the trade unions to play a role in industrial management and at the same time draw the working class into a fuller participation in politics. The working class had been excluded from the liberal state, but through their economic organisations, the unions, they could play a much fuller role as these governed their everyday lives. They saw the corporations and the corporate state as a means of increasing democracy and popular participation, not limiting it.

Fascist Corporativism

The corporations themselves are industrial organisations rather like the medieval guilds or trade unions. However, they included both the trade unions and employers organisations. There were already nine of them, but by the end of the regime in 1943 there were 27. Under Rocco’s Labour Charter, the Carta del Lavoro, strikes and lockouts were forbidden in the name of industrial peace and class collaboration. The corporation were required to settle labour disputes. However, if management and the unions were unable to reach agreement, then the dispute was to be referred to labour magistracy for settlement in special labour courts. Mussolini also reformed the Italian parliament, transforming the Chamber of Deputies into a Chamber of Fasces and Corporations. In practice the corporate state never amounted to very much. It never won over real working class support, and the corporations were never given real legislative power. It merely added another layer of bureaucracy and acted as nothing more than a rubber stamp to pass the policies Mussolini had already made. And he seems to have used it as ideological window dressing to give the impression that here was more to Fascism than his personal dictatorship.

The Unification of Italy and Political Alienation

The book argues that the corporate state was a genuine attempt to solve the deep problems of Italian unification left over from the Risorgimento. At the same time, it was also a radical response to the crisis, breakdown and revision of Marxist socialism and the failure of Marxist syndicalism in the late 19th and early 20th century.

The process of unification has produced an attitude of deep alienation from the state and politics amongst Italians, and Fascism was partly a response to this. This alienation isn’t confined to Italians, but it is particularly acute. Social studies in the 1970s showed that Italians are less likely than Americans, Brits or Germans to become politically involved. They regard the state as distant with little interest in them. At the same time, there is also an expectation that the bureaucrats in Rome will help them.

Like Germany, Italy was unified by military force and the invasion of the other, constituent states. However, for reasons of speed and a determination to preserve the new nation’s fragile unity, the other Italian states were simply annexed by Piedmont to be governed from there. There was supposed to be a constituent assembly in which the other states were to have their say in the creation of the new Italy, but this simply didn’t happen. At the same time, the industrialisation promoted by Italian liberals was concentrated in the north, so that the south remained backward and agricultural. The franchise was extremely restricted. It excluded illiterates, so that originally only 2 per cent of the population could vote. This was later extended to 7 per cent. At the same time, Italy’s leaders prevented the formation of proper political parties by taking over individuals from different parliamentary factions in order to form workable governing majorities. At the same time there was discontent and widespread criticism of the protectionism imposed to help the development of Italian heavy industry. Middle class critics believed that this unfairly benefited it at the expense of more dynamic and productive sectors of the economy. This led to the belief that Italy was being held back by class of political parasites.

This backwardness also led to an acute sense of pessimism amongst the elite over the character of the Italian people themselves. The Americans, British and Germans were disciplined with proper business values. Italians, on the other hand, were lazy, too individualistic and defied authority through lawlessness. This meant that liberalism was inadequate to deal with the problems of Italian society. ‘This English suit doesn’t fit us’, as one Fascist said. But this would change with the adoption of Fascism. One of Mussolini’s minions once declared that, thanks to Fascism, hard work and punctuality were no longer American, German and British values.

Syndicalism, Marxism and the Revision of Socialism

By the 1890s there was a crisis throughout Europe in Marxist socialism. Marx believed that the contradictions in capitalism and the continuing impoverishment of working people would lead to eventual revolution. But at this stage it was evident that capitalism was not collapsing. It was expanding, wages were rising and the working class becoming better off. This led to the reformist controversy, in which socialist ideologues such as Bernstein in Germany recommended instead that socialist parties should commit themselves to reforming capitalism gradually in order to create a socialist society. The syndicalists were originally Marxists, who looked forward to the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. However, they became increasingly disenchanted with Marxism and critical of the leading role of the working class. They originally believed, as with the French syndicalist Georges Sorel, that the class-conscious workers would be a new source of values. But they weren’t. They also believed that this would only be achieved through a long process of education through general strikes. They were horrified by the biennio rosso, the two years of strikes and industrial unrest that came after the end of the war, when it seemed that the Italian labour movement was going to follow the Russian Bolsheviks and create a revolution for which Italy and it working class were not ready.

At the same time, they came to reject Marxism’s doctrine that the political was determined by the economic sphere. They believed that Italy’s political problems could not be reduced to capitalism. Hence they believed that capitalism and private industry should be protected, but made subordinate to the state. Work was a social duty, and any industrial who did not run his company properly could, in theory, be removed and replaced. They also sought to give the workers a greater role in industrial management. This led them to go beyond the working class. They found a new revolutionary group in the Italian war veterans, who were radicalised by their experiences. These would have joined the socialists, but the latter had been strongly neutralist and as a result rejected and ridiculed the former soldiers for their patriotism. These found their ideological and political home with the syndicalists. At the same time, the syndicalists rejection of Marxist socialism led to their rediscovery of other, non-Marxist socialist writers like Mazzini, who also rejected liberalism in favour of a tightly knit Italian nation. Their bitter hatred of the corruption in Italian politics and its parasites led them to join forces with anarchists and other sectors of the Italian radical tradition. They believed that for Italy truly to unite and modernise, the workers should join forces with properly modernising industrialists in an alliance of producers.

Syndicalist Opposition to Mussolini’s Rapprochement to the Socialists

Looking at the development of Italian Fascism, it can seem that there was a certain inevitability to the emergence of Mussolini’s dictatorship and the totalitarian Fascist state. But this argues that there was nothing inevitable about it, and that it was forced on Mussolini in order to stop his movement falling apart. When Mussolini entered parliament and took over as prime minister, he seemed to be transforming what was originally a movement into the very type of party that the Fascist rank and file were in revolt against. Fascism was reconstituted as a party, and when the future Duce met the kind, he wore the top hat and frock coat of an establishment politician. Worse, Mussolini had started out as a radical socialist, and still seemed determined to work with them and other working class and left-wing parties. He signed a pacification pact with the Socialists and Populists, the Roman Catholic party, stopping the Fascist attacks on them, the trade unions and workers’ and peasants’ cooperatives. This horrified the syndicalists, who saw it as a threat to their own programme of winning over the workers and creating the new, corporatist order. As a result they pressurised Mussolini into rescinding that pacts, Mussolini and Fascism moved right-ward to ally with the capitalists and industry in the destruction of working class organisations.

Syndicalists and the Promotion of the Working Class

But it seems that the syndicalists were serious about defending the working class and giving it a proper role through the corporations in the management of industry and through that, political participation in the Italian state. Left Fascists like Olivetti and Ugo Spirito believed that the Italian state should operate a mixed economy, with the state running certain companies where appropriate, and the trade unions owning and managing cooperatives. Some went further, and recommended that the corporations should take over the ownership of firms, which would be operated jointly by management and the workers. This never got anywhere, and was denounced by other left syndicalists, like Sergio Pannunzio, one of their leaders.

From Internationalism to Imperialism

The book also raises grim astonishment in the way it reveals how the Syndicalists, who were initially quite internationalist in outlook, came to support Fascist imperialism. They shared the general Fascist view that Italy was being prevented from developing its industry through British and French imperialism. The two powers blocked Italy from access to trading with their colonies. They were therefore also critical of the League of Nations when it was set up, which they saw as an attempt by the great powers to maintain the international status quo. The Nationalists, who were formally merged with the Fascists, went further and demanded that Italy too should have an empire to benefit its industry, but also to provide land for colonisation by the surplus Italian population. Without it, they would continue to be forced to emigrate to countries like America and Britain, where they would become the lowest and most despised part of their working class. The syndicalists were also acutely aware of how low Italians were regarded and exploited in these countries, even by other members of the working class.

The syndicalists during the war and early post-war years criticised the Nationalists for their militarism and imperialism. Instead of looking forward to perpetual war, as the Nationalists did, they wanted to see instead the emergence of a new, federal European order in which nations would cooperate. This new federal state would eventually cover the world. They also looked forward to a new, equitable arrangement over access to the colonies. Pannunzio did support colonialism, which he believed was bringing civilisation to backward areas. But he also believed that colonies that were unable to become nations in their own right should be taken over by the League of Nations. Pannunzio declared ‘Egotism among nations is a material and moral absurdity; nations … cannot lived closed and isolated by must interact and cooperate’. This changed as time went on and Mussolini established the corporate state. This was always fragile and tentative, and accompanied by concessions to other sectors of Fascism on the right. In order to defend their fragile gains, the syndicalists gave their full backing to the Second World War and its imperialism, which they saw as a crusade to bring the corporate state, the great Italian achievement, but a backward world.

Workers Should Have a Role In Government, But Not Through Totalitarianism

I have to say I like certain aspects of the corporate state. I like the idea of trade unionists actively involved in the management of industry and in a special department of parliament, although as Sidney and Beatrice Webb point out in their Constitution for the Socialist Commonwealth of Great Britain, there are severe drawbacks with it. But any such corporatist chamber would have to be an expansion of liberal democracy, not a replacement for it. And I utterly reject and despise Fascism for its vicious intolerance, especially towards socialism and the working class, its rejection of democracy, and especially the militarism, imperialism and racism. Like Nazism it needs to be fought everywhere, in whatever guise it arises.

And the book makes very clear that the corporate state was an exaggerated response to genuine Italian problems, problems that could be solved within liberal, democratic politics.

Perhaps one day we shall see the return of trade unionists to parliaments reformed to allow them to play their proper role in government and industry. I make this recommendation in my booklet, For A Worker’s Chamber. But it should never be through any kind of autocratic, totalitarian regime.

Lenin’s Decree on Workers’ Control in the Russian Revolution

Robert V. Daniels’ A Documentary History of Communism in Russia from Lenin to Gorbachev (Burlington, Vermont: University of Vermont Press 1993) also contains the text of Lenin’s decree establishing workers’ control in businesses throughout the Russian empire. This ran

  1. In the interests of a systematic regulation of national economy, Worker’s Control is introduced in all industrial, commercial, agricultural (and similar) enterprises which are hiring people to work for them in their shops or which are giving them work to take home. This control is to extend over the production, storing, buying and selling of raw materials and finished products as well as over the finances of any enterprises.
  2. The workers will exercise this control through their elected organisations such as factory and shop committees, soviets of elders, etc. The office employees and the technical personnel are also to have representation in these committees.
  3. Every large city, province and industrial area is to have its own Soviet of Workers’ Control, which, being an organ of the S(oviet) of W(orkers’), S(oldiers’)and P(easants’) D(eputies), must be composed of representatives of trade unions, factory, shop and other workers’ committees and workers’ cooperatives.
  4. ….
  5. The organs of Workers’ Control have the right to supervise production fix the minimum of output, and determine the cost of production.
  6. The organs of Workers’ Control have the right to control all the business correspondence of an enterprise. Owners of enterprises are legally responsible for all correspondence kept secret. Commercial secrets are abolished. the owners have to show to the organs of Workers’ Control all their books and statements for the current year and for the past years.
  7. The rulings of the organs of Workers’ Control are binding on the owners of enterprises and can be annulled only by decisions of the higher organs of Workers’ Control. (pp. 69-70).

Daniels’ explains that this idea had the support of most of the Russian workers at the time, some of whom were already putting it into practise by force. Sergei Eisenstein shows workers taking over the factories and throwing the bosses out the gates in wheelbarrows in his classic piece of Communist propaganda, October. Lenin initially supported, but later overturned it and restored the authority of the factory management despite Bolshevik opposition. The reason for it is that it simply didn’t work. Lenin genuinely believed that poorly educated workers would have no trouble running a business, but commonsense simply tells you it isn’t true.

However, workers’ control is an inspiring idea. It continued in Yugoslavia as part of their self-management system, and there are ways in which it certainly could be made to work. One obvious way is to train the worker managers up to a level where they can make informed decisions before they start. Another is through the unions providing them with expert advisers on their behalf. These are just ideas off the top of my head. I’m sure that the people who have really tried it in practice through running cooperatives and have served as trade union officials and shop stewards in negotiations with management have better from their own experience.

We desperately need an element of workers’ control and industrial democracy, if not a full-blown representative chamber for working people in parliament. Working people have seen their rights at worker devastated through forty years of Thatcherism. One of the reasons the Tories have been able to enforce their wages freezes, introduce job precarity, zero hours contracts and the gig economy is that they’ve also destroyed the unions through grossly restrictive legislation. And they’re set to make it worse after Brexit, when they will get rid of all the minimum rights workers’ have under the EU’s Social Charter. Which they’ve been wanting to do for nearly forty years, again since Thatcher.

You don’t have to be as radical as Lenin and the Bolsheviks. But we do need a return of strong trade unions, workers’ representation in the boardroom and a Labour Party that actually stands up for working people.

Gorbachev’s Final Programme for the Russian Communist Party

Robert V. Daniels’ A Documentary History of Communism in Russia from Lenin to Gorbachev (Burlington, Vermont: University of Vermont Press 1993) contains the last party political programme Gorbachev. This was put forward at the last party plenum in 1991 before Communism finally collapsed. It’s an optimistic document which seeks to transform the totalitarian party and the Soviet Union’s command economy into a democratic party with a mixed economy. Gorbachev also cites as the principles underlying the transformation not just the values of the Communist party, but also the wider values of democracy, humanism and social justice.

The extract’s several pages long, and so I won’t quote it in full. But here some passages that are particularly interesting, beginning with Gorbachev’s statement of their values.

  1. Our Principles

… In its political activity the CPS will be guided by: – the interests of comprehensive social progress, which is assured by way of reforms…

-The principles of humanism and universal values.

-The principles of democracy and freedom in al ltheir various manifestations…

-The principles of social justice…

– The principles of of patriotism and internationalism…

-The interests of integrating the country into the world economy.

Section III, ‘Our Immediate Goals’ declares

… The CPSU stands for the achievement of the following goals:

In the political system. Development of the Soviet multinational state as a genuine democratic federation of sovereign republics;

setting up a state under the rule of law, and the development of democratic institutions; the system of soviets as the foundations of the state structure, as organs of popular rule and self-administration and of political representation of the interests of all strata of society; separation of powers – legislative, executive and judicial…

In the area of nationality relations: Equal rights for all people independently of their nationality and place of residence; equal rights and free development of all nationality under the unconditional priority of the rights of man…

In the economy. Structural rebuilding (perestroika) of the national economy, re-orienting it toward the consumer;

modernization of industry, construction, transport and communications on the basis of high technology, overcoming our lag behind the world scientific technical level, and thinking through the conversion of military production.

transition to a mixed economy based on the variety and legal equality of different forms of property – state, collective and private, joint stock and cooperative. Active cooperation in establishing the property of labour collectives and the priority development of this form of social prosperity;

formation of a regulated market economy as a means to stimulate the growth of economic efficiency, the expansion of social wealth, and the raising of the living standards of the people. This assumes free price formation with stage gains to needy groups of the population, the introduction of an active anti-monopoly policy, restoring the financial system to health, overcoming inflation, and achieving the convertibility of the ruble.

working out and introducing a modern agrarian policy; free development of the peasantry; allotment of land (including leaseholds with the right of inheritance) to all who are willing and able to work it effectively; state support of the agro-price parity in the exchange of the products of industry and agriculture;

comprehensive integration of the country in the world economy, and broad participation in world economic relations in the interest of the economic and social progress of Soviet society.

In the social sphere. Carrying out a state policy that allows us to reduce to a minimum the unavoidable difficulties and expenses connected with overcoming the crisis in the economy and making the transition to the market…

Averting the slide toward ecological catastrophe, solving the problems of [Lake] Baikal, the Aral Sea, and other zones of ecological impoverishment, and continuing the liquidation of the consequences of the Chernobyl disaster.

In education, science and culture. Spiritual development of the people, impoving the education and culture of each person, and strengthening morality, the sense of civic duty and responsibility and patriotism…

IV. Whose Interest the Party Expresses

… In cooperation with the labour movement and the trade unions we will defend the interests of the workers, to secure: due representation of the working class in the organs of power at all levels, real rights of labour collectives to run enterprises and dispose of the results of their labour, a reliable system of social protection…

We stand for freedom of conscience for all citizens. The party takes a respectful position toward the feelings of believers…

… We are against militant anti-Communism as a form of political extremism and negation of democracy that is extremely dangerous for the fate of society…

V. For a Party of Political Action

Communists are clearly aware that only a radically renewed party – a party of political action – can successfully solve new tasks.

The most important direction of renewal for the party is its profound democratization. This assumes the independence of the parties of the republics that belong to CPS, and space for the initiative of local and primary organizations.

… Guarantees must be worked out in the party so that its cadres never utilize their posts for mercenary interests, never speak contrary to conscience, and do not fear a hard struggle to achieve noble ends.

The renewal of the party presupposes a new approach to the understanding of its place in society and its relations with the state, and in the choice of means for the achievement of its political goals. The party acts exclusively by legal political methods. It will fight for deputies’ seats in democratic elections, winning the support of voters for its electoral platform and its basic directions of policy and practical action. Taking part in the formation of the organs of state power and administration, it will conduct its policy through them. It is ready to enter into broad collaboration wherever this is dictated by circumstances, and to conclude alliances and coalitions with other parties and organizations in the interest of carrying out a program of democratic reforms. In those organs of power where the Communist deputies are in the minority, they will assume the place of a constructive opposition, standing up against any attempt at infringing with the interests of the toilers and the rights and freedoms of citizens. Collaborating with other parliamentary groups, Communist deputies will manifest cooperation toward positive undertakings that come from other parties and movements…

The CPSU is built on the adherence of its members to the ideas of certain values. For us the main one of these is the idea of humane, democratic socialism. Reviving and developing the initial humanitarian principles of Marx, Engels and Lenin, we include in our arsenal of ideas the entire richness of national and world socialist and democratic thought. We consider communism as a historic perspective, a social ideal, based on universal human values, on the harmonious union of progress and justice, of the free self-realization of the individual.

(pp.379-82).

It’s an inspiring document, and if it had been passed and Communism and the Soviet Union not collapsed, it would have transformed the Communist party into a modern, centre-left party, committed to genuine democracy, religious freedom, technological innovation and development, tackling the ecological crisis, rooting out corruption within the party and standing with other groups to defend workers’ rights. I do have a problem with its condemnation of extreme anti-Communism. You would expect this from a leader who still wanted the Communist party to be the leading political force in the Soviet Union. It could just refer to groups like the morons who set up various Nazi parties and organisations in the 1980s. They had absolutely no understanding of what Nazism stood for, just that it was anti-Communist. But that clause could be used against other, far more moderate groups demanding radical change. I was impressed, however, by the statement that the Communists should be prepared to take a back seat in opposition. This completely overturns the central Communist dogma that the party should always take the leading role, even when in a coalition with other parties. It’s how Stalin got them to win democratic elections, before purging and dissolving those parties and sending their members to death or the gulag.

Ultimately the programme failed. One reason is that Gorbachev really didn’t understand just how hated the Communist party actually was. When I was studying the rise of Communist and Fascist regimes at college in the mid-80s, one of the newspapers reported that there were underground pop groups in the USSR singing such ditties as ‘Kill the Commies and the Komsomol too.’ The Komsomol was the Communist party youth organisation.

Daniel Kalder in his book Dictator Literature: A History of Despots through their writing (Oneworld: 2018) that Gorby’s project was undermined by the release under glasnost of Lenin’s suppressed works. Gorbachev had based his reforms on a presumed contrast between a democratic, benevolent Lenin, who had pledged Russia to a kind of state-directed capitalism in his New Economic Policy, and Stalin with his brutal totalitarianism, collectivisation of agriculture and the construction of the Soviet command economy. But Lenin frequently wrote for the moment, and his writings contradict themselves, though there is a central strand of thought that is consistent throughout. More seriously, he himself was viciously intolerant and a major architect of the Soviet one party state through the banning of other parties. The newly republished works showed just how false the image of Lenin as some kindly figure was, and just how nasty he was in reality.

But even after 30 a years, I still think Gorby’s proposed reforms are an excellent guide to what socialism should be. And his vision was far better than the bandit capitalism and massive corruption of Yeltsin’s administration, when the Soviet economy melted down. And its anti-authoritarianism and intolerance of corruption makes it far better than the regime of the current arkhiplut, Vladimir Putin. Although it has to be said that he’s done much good restoring conditions after Yeltsin’s maladministration.

And it’s also far better than the neoliberalism that has infected the Labour party, introduced by Tony Blair in Britain and Gerhard Schroder in Germany. I think we need something like Gorbachev’s vision here, in the 21st century Labour party, instead of further Thatcherism under Starmer.

The Webbs’ Suggestion for Reforming the Capitalist Press

Friday evening Extinction Rebellion took it upon themselves to blockade three print works owned by Murdoch in Merseyside, Hertfordshire and Lanarkshire. The works didn’t just print the Scum and the Scottish Scum, but also the Daily Heil, the Torygraph and the Evening Standard, which are respectively owned by Lord Rothermere, the weirdo Barclay twins and Evgeny Lebedev. The response of the press and indeed the political establishment have been predicted. Priti Patel for the Tories and Labour’s Emily Thornberry have both condemned the blockade as an attack on democracy. As has Keir Starmer, which shows his completely lack of scruples. He’s previously talked about how he was involved in protests against the Murdoch press. But like Blair, he’s desperate to get Murdoch and his empire of filth and lies on his side. Dawn Butler did issue a Tweet supporting Extinction Rebellion, but Starmer showed his true, Blairite authoritarianism and made her take it down.

I’m not a fan of Extinction Rebellion. Their cause is right and just, but I disagree with their tactics. Their strategy of blocking streets, including roads to hospitals, is dangerous and seems designed to annoy ordinary people and cost them support. But this time I think they’ve done the right thing. They’ve released a series of statements on social media pointing out that, contra to the nonsense the press and our leading politicians are saying, we don’t have a free press. Mike and Zelo Street have put up a couple of articles reporting this, and making the same point. The newspapers are owned by a very small number of billionaires. Five newspaper magnates own 83 per cent or so of the British press. And they don’t hold the government to account. Rather they act as propaganda outlets for the government. Mike has a quote from Lord Beaverbrook in which he openly said so. John Major when he was in power used to discuss with his cabinet how they could reach the British public with the help of their friends in the press.

Press and media bias against Labour was on the factors which lost the party the elections against Maggie Thatcher in the 1980s. Several books were published then analysing the media bias and the false reporting. These also made the point that the press was in the hands of a corporate oligarchy, and that they were part of great conglomerations which extended into other industries. As a result, certain issues were very definitely not reported. The Observer didn’t report on the savage crackdown on a mining dispute in Zimbabwe, because its proprietor, Tiny Rowland, was negotiating with Mugabe for a mining concessions.

But the problem of a hostile capitalist press also goes back much earlier to the emergence of organised labour, the socialist movement and then the Labour party in the 19th and early 20th centuries. And Sidney and Beatrice Webb made a few suggestions on how this could be overcome in their book, A Constitution for the Socialist Commonwealth of Great Britain. They recommended that, in line with other industries, they should be transformed into cooperatives, owned and managed by their readers. They write

We hazard the suggestion that here may be found the solution, in the Socialist Commonwealth, of the difficulty presented by the newspaper press. Although Socialists foresee a great development of official journals of every sort, in all the arts and sciences, industries and services, and in different parts of the country (published by authority, national, municipal or cooperative, vocational or university, and often posted gratuitously to those to whom the information is important), probably no Socialist proposes that the community should have nothing but an official press. At the same time, the conduct of a newspaper with the object of obtaining a profit – even more so the conduct of newspapers by wealthy capitalists with the object of influencing the public mind; or the purchase by such capitalists with ulterior objects, of one newspaper after another – appears open to grave objection, and obviously leads to very serious abuses. Especially during the stage of transition from a predominantly capitalist to a predominantly Socialist society, it may be necessary to prohibit the publication of newspapers with the object of private profit, or under individual ownership, as positively dangerous to the community. But this does not mean that there should be no unofficial journals. All that would be forbidden would be individual or joint-stock ownership and commercial profit. The greatest newspaper enterprises could be converted into consumers’ Cooperative Societies, in which every purchaser, or at any rate every continuous subscriber, thereby automatically became a member, casting one vote only, periodically electing a managing committee by ballot taken through the newspaper itself, and the managing committee exercising (with due participation in the management of the vocations concerned) entire control over the enterprise, but being required to devote any surplus of receipts over expenditure to the improvement of the newspaper itself, and being forbidden to distribute any part of it, either in dividends or in excessive salaries, or to individuals at all, otherwise than by way of reduction of the price for the future. It would certainly not be the wish of Socialists to prevent any group of readers from having (with the criminal law) any newspaper that they desired; and the form of a consumers’ Cooperative Society seems to make possible the utmost variety in independent journalism without dependence on capitalist ownership or the unwholesome stimulus of private profit. With periodicals limited to those owned, either by public authorities of one or other kind, or by consumers’ Cooperative Societies – ownership by individual or joint-stock Capitalism being entirely eliminated – the transformation of journalism into an organised and largely self-governing profession, enjoying not only independence and security but also a recognised standard of qualification and training, and a professional ethic of its own, would be greatly facilitated. (pp. 270-1).

I’m not sure the content of the mainstream press would necessarily change if they were transformed into consumer’s cooperatives owned and managed by their readers, as the readers of the Scum, Torygraph and Heil seem to enjoy the lies and hate these rags publish. On the other hand, it would solve the problem of the individual capitalist or company dominating press if the management of these firms were run by their readers, who elected and appointed them. You can just here the screams of Murdoch and co if that was suggested. Let’s do it!

I also note that trials in France have started of those accused of assisting the 2015 Charlie Hebdo massacre by Islamist terrorists. When the attack occurred, people all over France and the world showed their solidarity with the victims by marching under the banner ‘Je Suis Charlie Hebdo’. Now the Murdoch press and other rags are being blockaded and demonstrated against. So I’d to show where I stand on this issue:

Je Suis Extinction Rebellion.

A British Utopia: The Webbs’ Constitution for a Socialist Britain

Okay, I’ve finally finished reading Sidney and Beatrice Webb’s A Constitution for the Socialist Commonwealth of Great Britain, first published in 1920 and then again in 1975 by the LSE and Cambridge University Press. It’s very dated and clearly shows how very different things were when it was written and today.

The Advance of Socialism

Firstly, it’s an optimistic book. Democracy had finally arrived in Britain and the mobilisation and state industrial planning introduced during the First World War seemed to the Webbs to show very clearly that capitalism was in retreat. One of their earlier books, cited in this text, was on the decay of capitalism. The vast increase in efficiency and the production and distribution of goods through the state management of the economy in the War years also seemed to them to provide a further demonstration that capitalist was a wasteful, inefficient system that was destined to be superseded by socialism. The industries and businesses taken into state, municipal or cooperative ownership would be able to produce goods more cheaply and affordably than capitalism with its class system and exploitation. The Webbs were not just impressed with the arguments for state ownership, but the way local authorities up and down Britain were also operating and managing local services, including medical care, electricity and gas companies. Another powerful motor driving the march of socialism and its transform of Britain was the cooperative movement and the trade unions. Millions of Brits belonged to their local coop store. The businesses handled millions of pounds, owning subsidiary companies and trading with other, similar businesses right across the globe. At the same time, the trade unions were resisting capitalism and, with the entry of working men into parliament, providing proof that the working class could manage industry and govern.

The Problems of the Cooperative Movement and Workers’ Control

There were problems with both of these latter movements, however. The coop’s managers and directors were unimaginative in the development of new goods and services, and as exploitative as capitalist business when it came to the treatment of their employees. The trade unions were divided with a hodge-podge of very different and often contradictory constitutions and frequently in conflict with each other and their leaders. Some times this conflict was physical, as when one group of trade unionists broke into their headquarters and physically removed their leaders from power. At the same time, against the syndicalists and Guild Socialists, the Webbs argued that the management of industry solely by the workers was always unsuccessful. When it had been tried, it had shown that the workers always managed their firms for themselves, so that they either became uncompetitive with conventional capitalist firms, and ignored the demands and requirements of the wider community.

Criticisms of Parliamentary System

At the same time, the traditional British parliamentary system was also inadequate to deal with the increase in political business created by the nascent welfare state and emergent state sector. The Webbs took seriously contemporary Conservative criticism about the decay of parliament. Their solution was to recommend the creation of two different, separate assemblies. One would be a political parliament, that would follow the traditional 19th century view of what constituted politics. This would deal with criminal law, defence, foreign relations and the Empire. The second would be a social parliament, that would manage the economy, industry and social and cultural matters, including education. The members of both parliaments would be elected, but, in contrast to the arguments of the syndicalists, this would be by geographical constituency, not by trade. The conventional system of government by cabinet ministers was also unsuitable and incapable of dealing with the demands of the new political and economic realities. Thus the Webbs instead recommended that the parliaments should operate under the system of committees used by local authorities.

Local Government

The book also shows the state of local government at the time it was written in its recommendations for that sector’s reform. This was a time when the functions of what would later become local councils was split between a number of different boards. There was one for the poor law, another for sanitation, and others for education, medical care and so on, each of whose members were separately elected. At the same time, local councillors themselves were unpaid volunteers, which meant that it was dominated by landlords and businessmen, who governed in their own interests. The Webbs therefore demanded what is now the obvious, established practice: the creation of local authorities which would absorb and carry out the functions of the various boards, whose elected councillors would be paid. At the same time, the local ward would be the basis building block of local democracy, and the local authorities would be free to unite in larger, composite organisations where this was suitable, even to the point where they could compete in the management of industry with the social parliament.

Nationalisation, State Control and Personal Freedom

The Webbs believed that nationalisation would actually involve very few industries. Only those that affected the nation as a whole, such as the mines, the railways and natural resources, that would need to be carefully protected and managed for the future, would be taken into state ownership. These would in practice be managed by individual industrial boards and organisations, not by the social parliament itself. This would confine itself to supervision and matters of general investigation and legislation. That was partly so that, if there was an industrial dispute, it would not be seen as an attack on the state requiring the intervention of the armed forces. At the same time the Webbs were keen to stress that the new system should take every step to preserve individual liberty. Legislation should be scrutinised to ensure that it did not take away personal freedom, and no-one should be compelled to use a socialised firm if they preferred a capitalist alternative. Local authorities would also set up a range of businesses and services for the benefit of their communities. Yet others would be owned and operated as cooperatives, including the press. This would solve the problem of its use to spread capitalist propaganda. While firms would continue to be managed by a salaried, professional staff, their boards would also include the representatives of the workers.

Active Public Involvement in Industry

At the same time, the Webbs were also keen to include the British public in the management of industry and conduct of politics. Consumers’ groups were to be encouraged and their suggestions for improved conduct and services should be taken seriously. In contrast with capitalism, where firms kept their operations very secret, the British public would have access to all the facts and figures about the management and conduct of industry and economy presented in government publications and reports from their own MPs and councillors. They were to be encouraged to take an active interest in government and the economy, and be ready to make their own criticisms and recommendations. At the same time professional and trade associations like the British Medical Association, law society and scientific and engineering associations, including the trade unions, would also be encouraged to develop high standards of morality and professionalism with their occupations.

Protection of Indigenous Peoples

They also recognised that there would be ethical problems with a socialist Britain trading with other countries, who remained capitalist, and with less developed countries. They therefore looked to the new League of Nations and other institutions as new guardians of a new international morality, who would protect the indigenous peoples of the world from capitalist exploitation.

Socialism Cutting Down on Capitalist Bureaucracy

They also take care to refute two particular objections to socialism. One is that it would be too bureaucratic. Instead, they argue that uniting different firms into a single industrial organisation, as would be done for the mines and railways, for example, would actually reduce bureaucracy. At the time they were writing these industries were split between a number of different companies all with their own separate management boards.

Socialism Means Expanding Private Property

The second is that socialists are totally opposed to private property. This is not so, declare the Webbs. They are not opposed to private property, and active want its expansion. What they are opposed to is the private ownership of industry. But they want people to have their own homes and gardens, and for an expansion of personal property as ordinary people are able to afford a wider range of goods and possessions which at present are only confined to the wealthy.

The Individual Professional in a Socialist Economy

The Webbs also believe that there will be a place in the socialist economy for some capitalist, private industry. This particularly includes individual professionals, who provide their professional expertise for a fee. They also look forward to an expansion of education. They believe that socialism will lead to rapid improvements in technology and industrial management, which will mean that some workers will become unemployed. Those workers will be retrained and taught new skills. Those unable to master these will not be allowed to starve, but will instead be given good pensions on which to live.

The Webbs’ Vision and Contemporary Reality

The Webbs’ vision is obviously more than a little Utopian. They have been proven right in their recommendations for the reform of local government, some of which they were actually responsible for. At the same time, they’ve been proven right in the expansion of education. At the time they were writing, most working people left school around age 12. Now the government wishes half of all school leavers to go on to university, which in their case means they complete their education at 21.

On the other hand, the cooperative movement has failed to transform British society and is now effectively just another retail chain. Parliament has also shown itself competent to deal with both the increased business and areas of government, like industry and the economy so that there is no need for a separate, social parliament. It’s just that it’s been a disaster that the country is governed by doctrinaire Tories, who have wrecked the economy, society and manufacturing industry, not to mention health and education, in favour of the free market. But there are still strong arguments for nationalisation and for the inclusion of the workers themselves in the management of their firms. As for the British Empire, it’s now long gone and has been transformed into the Commonwealth. However the neocolonial system of tariffs imposed by the developed world prevent their former colonies in Africa from developing their own manufacturing industries and have imposed a new system of capitalist exploitation.

Capitalism Creating Misery and Poverty

But conditions in the early 21st century also show that, if the socialist utopia hasn’t materialised, capitalism hasn’t fulfilled its promise either. The free market economy zealously promoted by Thatcher and Reagan is very definitely and obviously not bringing prosperity. Rather it is a just returning us to the poverty and misery of the 19th century, coupled with the threat of global climate change and the ecological crisis. The problems that the Webbs and other socialists believed could only be solved through socialism.

Conclusion

Socialism probably doesn’t have all the solutions. But it still has many of them. Even though it’s very dated, this book is still worth reading. At its heart is a vision of socialism which would lead to greater prosperity and for working people to be able to develop and improve themselves. At the same time, individual freedom and the rights of the individual would be secured. A state bureaucracy would govern the nationalised industries, that of the local authorities those under their control. But there would be a range of companies and industries created and managed through ordinary people themselves through cooperatives they would be encouraged to found. Instead of entrepreneurs being limited to a small class of individuals, the public as a whole would become business owners and managers, actively interested in their companies and enterprises. This would be too much for many. It’s arguable that most people in this country have little interest in politics or industry and are content to leave it to others. Hence the persistence of capitalism and the electoral success of the Tories.

The Webbs’ constitution is an attempt to provide an alternative system to capitalism and its failures. It’s dated, but still inspiring. And real socialist solutions are as necessary now as they were when it was written. I hope that more people discover it, as I have, and that it also inspires them.

Fabian Blueprint for a Socialist Britain

Sidney and Beatrice Webb, with an introduction by Samuel H. Beer, A Constitution for the Socialist Commonwealth of Great Britain (Cambridge: London School of Economics/ Cambridge University Press 1975).

I got this through the post yesterday, having ordered it a month or so ago. The Webbs were two of the founding members of the Fabian Society, the others including George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells. The idea of the NHS goes back to their minority report on the nation’s health published in the years before or round about the First World War. First published in 1920, this is their proposal for a socialist Britain.

The blurb for it on the front flap runs

The Constitution for a Socialist Commonwealth is a book that helps us understand the ‘mind of the Webbs’. Of all their works, it is the most general in scope – Beatrice called it a ‘summing up’ – and it does much to reveal the ideology of the great partnership. And since the mind of the Webbs was also the mind (though not the heart) of British socialism, an appreciation of this ideology, considered not only with regard to its confusions and blinds spots, but also its insights and intellectual sensitivities, helps one understand the Labour Party and what is still sometimes called ‘the Movement’.

But the book also has a broader importance. The problems that prompted the Webbs to write it still plague Great Britain and other, advanced societies. In 1920, the year of its publication, the modern democratic state was being sharply confronted by a syndicalist challenge based on the rising economic power of organised producers’ groups. Hardly less serious were the political difficulties of giving substance to parliamentary and popular control int eh face of growing bureaucratisation and a mass electorate. With regard to both sorts of problems, the Webbs were often prescient in their perceptions and sensible in their proposals. They concentrate on economic and political problems that are still only imperfectly understood by students of society and have by no means been mastered by the institutions of the welfare state and managed economy.

After Beer’s introduction, the book has the following chapters, which deal with the topics below.

Introduction

The Dictatorship of the Capitalist – The Manifold Character of Democracy.

The book is split into two sections. Part 1, ‘A Survey of the Ground’, contains

Chapter 1 – Democracies of Consumers

Voluntary Democracies of Consumers – Obligatory Associations of Consumers – The Relative Advantages of Voluntary and Obligatory Associations of Consumers – The Economic and Social Functions of Associations of Consumers.

Chapter 2 – Democracies of Producers

The Trade Union Movement – Professional Associations of Brain Workers – The Relative Advantages and Disadvantages of Obligatory and Voluntary Associations of Producers – The Economic and Social Functions of Associations of Producers: (i) Trade Unions; (ii) Professional Associations.

Chapter 3 – Political Democracy

The Structure of British Political Democracy: (a) the King; (b) the House of Lords; (c) the House of Commons and the Cabinet – Cabinet Dictatorship – Hypertrophy – A Vicious Mixture of Functions – the Task of the M.P. – the Failure of the Elector – The Warping of Political Democracy by a Capitalist Environment – Political Parties – The Labour Party – The Success of Political Democracy in general, and of British democracy in particular – The Need for Constitutional Reform.

Part II, ‘The Cooperative Commonwealth of Tomorrow’, begins with another introduction, and then the following chapters.

1 – The National Government

The King – the House of Lords – The National Parliament – the Political Parliament and its Executive – the Social Parliament and its Executive – the Relation between the Political and the Social Parliaments – Devolution as an Alternative Scheme of Reform – The Argument summarised – the Political Complex – The Social Complex – The Protection of the Individual against the Government.

2 – Some Leading Considerations in the Socialisation of Industries and Services

Three Separate Aspects of Economic Man – The Relative Functions of Democracies of Consumers and Democracies of Producers – Democracies of Citizen-Consumers – Democracies of Producers – ownership and Direction – The Participation in Management by the Producers.

3 – The Nationalised Industries and Services

The Abandonment of Ministerial Responsibility – The Differentiation of Control from Administration – The Administrative Machine – District Councils – Works Committees – the Recruitment of the Staff – Discipline Boards – Collective Bargaining – Advisory Committees – The Sphere of the Social Parliament – How the Administration will work – Initiative and Publicity – The Transformation of Authority – Coordinated instead of Chaotic Complexity – The Price of Liberty.

4 – The Reorganisation of Local Government

The Decay of Civic Patriotism – The Chaos in the Constitution and Powers of existing Local Authorities – Areas – The Inefficiency of the ‘Great Unpaid’ – The Principles on which Reconstruction should proceed – The Principle of Neighbourhood – The principle of Differentiation of Neighbourhoods – The principle of Direct Election – The Principle of the General Representatives – The Correspondence of Area and Functions – The Local Government of Tomorrow – The Representation of the Citizen-Consumer – The Local Councillor – Vocational Representation – Committees of Management – Machinery for Collective Bargaining – The Practicability of Vocational Self-Government in Municipal Government – The Industries and Services of Local Authorities – Emulation among Local Authorities – The Federation of Local Authorities – The Relation of Municipal Institutions to the Social and Political Parliaments.

5 – the Sphere of Voluntary Associations of Consumers in the Socialist Commonwealth

The Co-operative Movement – The Limitations of the Cooperative Movement – Constitutional Changes in the Cooperative Movement – Other Voluntary Associations of Consumers – Adult Education – The Future of the Country House – The Extension of Personality – The Problem of the Press – The Safeguarding of the Public Interest.

6 – The Reorganisation of the Vocational World

The Trade Union Movemewnt as the Organ of Revolt against the Capitalist System – The Right of Self-Determination for each Vocation – What Constitutes a Vocation – The Right of Free Enterprise for Socialised Administrations – Vocational Organisation as a Stratified Democracy; (a) How will each Vocation be recruited? (d) The Relative Position of Obligatory and Voluntary Organisation in a Vocation; (e) The Function of Vocational Organisation; (f) Subject Associations; (g) The Development of Professional Ethic; (h) Vocational Administration of Industries and Services; (i) Is there any Place for a National Assembly of Vocational Representatives?

7 – The Transitional Control of Profit-Making Enterprise

The Policy of the National Minimum – The Promotion of Efficiency and the Prevention of Extortion – The Standing Committee on Productivity – The Fixing of Prices – The Method of Expropriation – Taxation – The Relation of Prices to the National Revenue – The continuous Increase in a Socialist Commonwealth of Private Property in Individual Ownership – How Capital will be provided – The Transition and its Dangers- The Spirit of Service – The Need for Knowledge.

I’ve been interested in reading it for a little while, but finally decided to order it after reading in Shaw’s The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism, Capitalism, Sovietism and Fascism that the Webb’s included an industrial parliament in their proposed constitution. I’d advocated something similar in a pamphlet I’d produced arguing that parliament was dominated by millionaires and managing directors – over 70 per cent of MPs have company directorships – working people should have their own parliamentary chamber.

The book is a century old, and doubtless very dated. It was republished in the 1970s during that decades’ acute trade union unrest and popular dissatisfaction with the corporative system of the management of the economy by the government, private industry and the trade unions. These problems were all supposed to have been swept away with the new, private-enterprise, free market economy introduced by Maggie Thatcher. But the problem of poverty has become more acute. The privatisation of gas, electricity and water has not produced the benefits and investment the Tories believed. In fact electricity bills would be cheaper if they’d remained in state hands. Ditto for the railways. And the continuing privatisation of the NHS is slowly destroying it for the sake of expensive, insurance-financed private medical care that will be disastrous for ordinary working people.

And the growing poverty through stagnant wages and welfare cuts, seen in the growth of food banks, is also partly due to the destruction of trade union power and the exclusion of working people from the management of their companies and industries.

I haven’t yet read it, but look forward to doing so because I feel that, despite Tory lies and propaganda and no matter how dated, the Webbs’ proposals and solutions are still acutely relevant and necessary.