Britain: the relevance of Clause IV – a reply to Owen Jones

It is a pleasant surprise to see that Owen Jones, the left-wing Guardian journalist, has written a favourable review of the Labour Party’s original Clause IV, which was adopted by the party just over a century ago. His review was carried in the first issue of the recently relaunched Tribune magazine.

We very much welcome Owen’s contribution, as it helps to open up a serious debate on the relevance of Clause IV today.

Revolutionary mood

Jones’ article begins with a description of the turbulent background when the Labour Party came to draft its new socialist constitution in 1918.

“As Clause IV was being drafted,” he explains, “Bolshevism was on the brink of triumph in the Russian Empire and the revolutionary left seemed to be on the rise across Europe.”

“In Britain itself, strike action had been escalating before the First World War, triggering growing panic in elite circles. Warships were sent down the Mersey, and Winston Churchill deployed soldiers to fire on striking Welsh miners.

“Though unrest subsided when millions of British men were sent to fight on the continent, trade union membership more than trebled from 2.6 million in 1918 to nearly 8 million by 1919. Even as war continued to rage in 1918, strike action soared: 6 million working days were lost to industrial action. By the end of the year, even the Metropolitan Police had gone on strike.”

It was under the impact of the Russian Revolution and the revolutionary wave that was sweeping Europe that the organised working class in Britain moved in a radical direction. This movement clearly reflected itself within the ranks of the affiliated organisations of the Party, which turned sharply towards socialism.

According to Max Beer, writing in 1919:

“The social revolutionary ferment, with its symptomatic unrest and strike fever, and the fiery cataclysm which shook Europe for the last years and laid bare the foundations of modern civilisation, rendered a reconstruction of society necessary and prompted the leading minds of the working classes to make the Labour Party the political instrument of that reconstruction…

“The Party, by embodying into its constitution the declaration of common ownership of the means of production, has become a socialist Labour Party.” (Beer, A History of British Socialism, vol.2, pp. 395, 398)

Owen Jones goes on to draw the conclusion, however, that because Clause IV was drawn up by a sub-committee made up of the Fabian Sydney Webb and Arthur Henderson, the secretary of the party, both right-wing reformists, it was “not so much an attempt to capture this mounting disillusionment as to divert it”.

If this was their intention, it certainly failed. In the years that followed, the membership and influence of the Labour Party grew by leaps and bounds, overtaking the Liberal Party. In the 1918 general election, the Labour Party gained nearly 2.5 million votes compared to 400,000 in 1910, becoming the largest opposition party in parliament.

By hand or by brain

Furthermore, Jones describes Clause IV as “a fudge, falling someway short of the radical demands of the day”.

Well, yes and no. This can be said of the second part of the clause, which instead of clearly calling for workers’ control or workers’ management, calls for “the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service”. But the first part is far bolder and clearer in content.

Whatever the real intentions of Webb and Henderson, attempts to water down the socialist content of the new constitution could only go so far. It would come up against the resistance of the radicalised ranks of the party. While Webb and Henderson attempted to downplay workers’ control with the more vague Fabian expression of “popular administration”, they were forced to be much bolder in regard to the reference to “common ownership”.

Clause IV Image public domainJones says we need to 'update' Clause IV, but its radical demands for "common ownership of the means of production" resonate today / Image: public domain

They were, after all, under intense pressure at the time to satisfy the radicalised workers in the Labour Party who were looking for fundamental change. They would never have got away with diluting the socialist message to any great extent. They could never have done what Tony Blair did in 1995.

That is why the first part is far bolder and in fact follows the views of the pioneers of the movement, including its Marxist wing, the Social Democratic Federation (SDF).

“To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange”,  follows the language of the early socialists.

This can be shown by the fact that the SDF moved a resolution in 1900 to commit the Labour Party to “the socialisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange”. These words are very similar to the 1918 version. This resolution was however defeated at the time. A similar resolution was submitted in 1901 and again rejected. Unfortunately, the SDF, in a sectarian fashion, walked out.

Nevertheless, it shows that it was the left wing of the movement that pressed the idea of “common ownership”, as opposed to the Fabians and the reformists.

Common ownership

The idea was in fact taken up by Keir Hardie, the leader of the Labour Party, in a debate in the House of Commons. On 23 April 1901, he called for legislation to inaugurate “a Socialist Commonwealth founded upon the common ownership of land and capital, production for use and not profit, and equality of opportunity for every citizen”.

Again, in 1908, Atkinson, a delegate from the paper strainers and member of the SDF, moved a resolution at the Labour annual conference, which stated:

“The ultimate object shall be the obtaining for the workers the full results of their labour by the overthrow of the present competitive system of capitalism and the institution of a system of public ownership and control of all the means of life.”

While this motion was lost, two days later the following resolution was carried at the Labour conference by 514,000 to 469,000 votes:

“That in the opinion of this Conference the time has arrived when the Labour Party should have as a definite object the socialisation of the means of production, distribution, and exchange…”

Eventually, this call for the common ownership of the means of production became the basis of the socialist Clause IV of the constitution of the party.

This socialist view of common ownership was not simply confined to the new party constitution, but was proclaimed in the election manifesto of the Labour Party in 1918. The manifesto was called “Labour and the New Social Order”. Incidentally, it was drafted by Sidney Webb, who had been clearly affected by the crisis.

Rather than watering down the socialist commitment, the manifesto was the boldest ever issued by the Labour Party. It asserted that what had to be reconstructed was not “this or that piece of social machinery” but “society itself”.

It also expressed the need for “the socialisation of industry” based upon “a genuinely scientific reorganisation of the nation’s industry, no longer deflected by industrial profiteering, on the basis of the Common Ownership of the Means of Production”.

Nationalisation and workers’ control

In dealing with Clause IV, Owen Jones correctly criticises the lack of any workers’ control involved in the nationalisations of the Attlee government. In fact, this was a form of state capitalism, where the minority nationalised sector acted in the interests of the majority private sector. The 80 percent privately-owned sector dictated to the 20 percent state sector.

Rather than the profitable sectors of the economy being nationalised, it was the bankrupt sectors or those needing massive reinvestment. The old owners were paid massive over-compensation, while management was in the hands of bureaucrats, former managers and those who had no connection with the industry. The workers in these industries were excluded.

The way in which the nationalised industries were bureaucratically run allowed the Tories to discredit the idea of nationalisation in the minds of many people.

This in turn prepared the ground for Tony Blair’s attack on Clause IV. The right wing were prepared to tolerate Clause IV as long as it would never be implemented. None of the Labour leaders believed in it. By 1994, they openly championed the market and privatisation.

Owen Jones correctly recognises the need to remove Tony Blair’s new Clause IV, which eulogised the “enterprise of the market and the rigour of competition”. He says the crisis of capitalism had soured the support for the market. There is clearly a growing hatred for the bankers and big business.

“Where the market was once associated with efficiency and modernity, today it is just as easily associated with avarice and fragility,” explains Jones.

“The self-evident failure of privatised utilities has led to overwhelming support for public ownership: according to a poll by one right-wing think tank, 83 percent support nationalising water, and around three-quarters back reversing the privatisation of electricity, gas, and the railways. In such a context, Labour’s constitutional commitment to market economics is anachronistic. The case for re-evaluating the architecture of the economy, for embracing democracy and common ownership, is once again compelling.”

We could add that according to the Legatum Institute poll, 50 percent were in favour of nationalising the banks. And this is without any campaign around this question.

Labour’s mission

Owen Jones correctly states, “Now that Corbynism has secured both the leadership and the party apparatus, there is an opportunity for Labour to write a new mission statement.”

However, he continues: “But that does not mean a return to the wording of the old Clause IV.”

But why not? What does he suggest as an alternative?

Clause IV 1 Image public domainThe essential core of the 1918 definition was precisely the common ownership of the economy. Unfortunately, Owen Jones studiously avoids this central question. We say this is the heart of the matter / Image: public domain

Jones says, “We should be inspired by the socialist commitments of the past — such as our first 1974 manifesto, which pledged to bring about ‘a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people and their families’.”

He goes on: “It should affirm socialism as the extension of democracy to every part of society: not just the political realm, but the economy and the workplace too. To achieve this, it should commit to democratic control of industry, utilities, and services by workers, consumers, service users, and communities.”

He then mentions the “elimination of exploitation and oppression”. Then adds the need to “maximise the leisure time of workers” and a “sustained economy”.

Jones concludes his article with the words: “A century after the party adopted the first Clause IV, it is time for Labour to make clear that it is here not to tinker with a broken system but to build a new society altogether.”

These are fine words and aspirations. However, the only thing missing from Owen Jones’ new mission statement is the key question of the “common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange”. This is precisely the most important element in the 1918 version of Clause IV, later emasculated by Blair.

Demand the whole bakery

If we are to end exploitation and oppression, and instead run the economy in the interests of working people, then we need to nationalise the commanding heights of the economy – the banks and giant monopolies.

We do not simply want a “shift in the balance of power”, as this power can always be shifted back. We want power to be taken out of the hands of big business and placed into the hands of the working class. This means ending the rule of big business.

We do not want just a bigger slice of the cake. We want the whole bakery! After all, you can’t plan what you don’t control, and you don’t control what you don’t own. It is as simple as that.

This is the problem of departing from the original Clause IV. The danger is that any new definition in the hands of reformists can be easily watered down, leaving the door open for capitalism.

The essential core of the 1918 definition was precisely the common ownership of the economy. Unfortunately, Owen Jones studiously avoids this central question. We say this is the heart of the matter.

We are not interested in taking over the small-or medium-sized businesses. We are talking about the nationalisation of the banks and the ‘commanding heights’ of the economy: the top 150 monopolies which dominate production. If they are left in private hands, then capitalism and all its ill remain.

That is why we are in favour of the original wording of Clause IV. This has nothing to do with sentimentality, but flows from the need to boldly call for the socialist transformation of society. There has been far too much backsliding over the years.

If supplementary points are needed, they can be added to other parts of the constitution. However, the commitment to abolishing capitalism should remain. The original Clause IV does not need tinkering with. It is clear in its commitment and should be restored to its proper place.

These words, however, should not simply lie there. Instead, they should be a rallying cry for working people. Above all, they must be implemented by a socialist Labour government in order to solve the problems facing the working class today.

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