Issue 228 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published March 1999 Copyright Socialist Review

Stack on the back

Digging up the dregs

'Then along comes Stephen Byers and states just about as plainly as you can that it's time for a new final goal altogether'

'The final goal is nothing ... the movement is everything.' So said Eduard Bernstein, the arch-revisionist of the German Social Democratic Party towards the end of the last century.

It seems an extraordinary statement, but it has become the byword for reformism everywhere. Think of the number of times Tony Blair, and before him Neil Kinnock, explained that principles without power were futile. Therefore if you needed to get power by dropping principles--well, so be it. It was an argument that had a real impact. Many in the Labour Party who felt distinctly uncomfortable with the dropping of nuclear disarmament, the ditching of Clause Four and other Labour principles felt it necessary to go along with them because not to do so was to rock the boat, to endanger electoral success, to remain with principles, but without power.

Okay, so your party might not do all the things you want it to do in government, but at least it would be better than the Tories. At least it would protect the weak and vulnerable, whom the Tories had kicked from pillar to post. At least it would stop the huge transfer of wealth from poor to rich which had so marked out the Thatcher/Major years.

Even at this level, of course, New Labour has proved a disappointment. Single parents, the unemployed, the disabled, pensioners all quickly became the focus of New Labour wrath. Nor were there promising signs that the shift in wealth was going to be halted, let alone reversed. After all, the two main methods by which you could turn the thing around were through extra taxes on the rich and greater public expenditure on the poor. Yet Gordon Brown made it clear that for the first two years of the government he would stick to Tory taxation and spending plans.

Nevertheless the faithful could grit their teeth and wait for the two years to come to an end and hope then for a brighter, more radical future.

Then along comes Stephen Byers, trade and industry secretary, and states just about as plainly as you can that it's time for a new final goal altogether, a final goal that sounds ever so similar to the final goal of...well, actually, the Tories. Yes, those same Tories everybody made all those sacrifices of principle to get rid of in the first place! Now Byers explains that those principles are outdated, that wealth distribution is no longer a priority. Instead wealth creation is the key. In other words, whether inequality is growing or diminishing is irrelevant. Nor does it matter whether wealth is being produced for the general good or to line a handful of greedy bastards' pockets.

By this logic the profits of those who live off wealth creation should have no causal impact on the wages of those who 'actually create the wealth'. Although no doubt we will be assured that the richer the rich get, the better for us all. Their profitable leftovers will trickle down to the rest of us rather like gravy running down the chin of a corpulent feudal lord to be licked up from the floor by his pet wolfhound.

But we've heard all that before. Thatcherism is one name it went by, another was Reaganomics (something of a misnomer since old Ronnie had little clue what day it was, let alone a firm grasp of economic theory). It was, of course, also a lie. The rich got unbelievably richer at the expense of the rest of us, while the poor simply got poorer. Nevertheless a New Labour minister, a high flyer we're told, one very close to Blair himself, ends up digging up the dregs of the Thatcher/Reagan era and tries selling it as some radical new insight.

What an insight: workers should continue to raise productivity, work longer hours, increase profitability, and expect absolutely nothing in return. Nothing, that is, except the pleasure of seeing the boss get richer, the fat cats get fatter the greedy get greedier.

Can anyone seriously believe that this is why Labour won so overwhelmingly, that people voted for more of the same, that they just wanted new faces, new images, but the same old substance? Amazingly it seems the Blairs and Byers of this world believe precisely this, or else don't much care what the majority of their supporters think so long as a few well heeled recent converts to 'the movement' are happy.

Their 'final goal' seems to be not to destroy capitalism (nobody seriously believed Labour, New or Old, was ever going to do that), not to make capitalism more palatable, remove the rougher nastier edges (many joined Labour precisely because they thought it could at least achieve that). Rather New Labour just wants to be better at running capitalism (nice or nasty) than its Tory predecessors.

Like Bernstein before them, Labour ministers believe capitalism will go on and on. Like him they believe that fighting for real change is unnecessary and outmoded. Yet they would do well to learn the lesson of Bernstein. Within a relatively short space of time his crisis free capitalism was creating the conditions for world war, followed by huge revolutionary convulsions.

The final goal became the battleground. The movement failed the test (indeed took the other side), with ultimately disastrous consequences for the German working class. The path was cleared for Hitler.

Blair, I'm sure, is blissfully unaware of all this, as he and his acolytes utter vacuous phrases about wealth creation and stand in awe of the rich and famous. But the mass of people who voted for him still have an eye firmly on that final goal.
Pat Stack

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