Fifty years ago the Labour Party won an overwhelming victory in the general election that followed the defeat of Hitler. Labour had been governing Britain since 1940 in a coalition with the Tories and Liberals. Now it had supreme governmental power.
It used it to create the Welfare State. Draining some of the jungles and swamps of capitalism, the labour movement raised workers to a level of security and frugal well-being such as millions of our class had not known before. This was “reform socialism” at the height of its success.
When Labour MPs got up and sang the Red Flag in the House of Commons, millions of workers felt that “reform socialism” had not only triumphed over the Tories and the capitalists, but also won the old fundamental debate with the other sort of socialism — class-struggle, revolutionary, socialism. Reformists would do the job. Reformists were doing it. The “commanding heights” of the capitalist economy could be seized and used for the common good without expropriating, that is, without destroying, the capitalist class, and without abolishing wage-slavery.
This was nver a logical or satisfying argument. There were too many gaps in it for that. You did not have to look very faor to see that the capitalists were still in control. It was not the arguments of reform socialism that thinking workers accepted and put their faith in, but its substantial achievements.
Fifty years on, the achievements of reform socialism are in ruins. A capitalism savage in mien and manner rules our lives. The wild beasts of capitalism which the reformists thought to have tamed now roam our society, predators as powerful today as the bourgeois robber-barons were in the 19th century.
In 1945 Labour had vast support throughout society and even in the armed forces, many of whose members had come out of fighting German imperialist fascism determined to settle accounts with the capitalist “old gang” back here. If a peaceful revolution against capitalism will ever be possible, it was possible in Britain then. Labour in 1945 could have eradicated the ruling class, ended wage-slavery, and helped the working class bring into being real — social as well as political — democracy.
In fact there was no other way to make secure even the limited reforms to humanise capitalism which Labour achieved in 1945. Left in being, the ruling class eventually reclaimed what they thought of as their own — the untrammelled right to run society for their own puposes. It will remain their own until we take it from them for good and all.
If today “1945 socialism” seems like a golden age in comparison to now, it was a golden time which was slowly hatching the seeds of Thatcherism and of its own obliteration. That the other socialism, revolutionary socialism, has been vindicated to anyone prepared to think about it, is cold comfort in a labour movement devastated by Thatcherism. We, the socialists of the working class, can not rise higher than our class; that we were right against the reform socialists does not protect us from the consequences of the defeats produced by the failings of the reform socialists.
Today it sometimes seems an academic argument, reform socialism or revolutionary socialism. It is not. It is fundamental to our work of preparing the future that socialists learn the lessons of the past.
Here and now, the way forward for socialists is the struggle for reforms and for the defence and rebuilding of what remains of the Welfare State. That is what we, alongside others, do in campaigns like the Welfare State Network. By once more spelling out the lessons of the old debates between reform and revolutionary socialism on this 50th anniversary of the great triumph of reform socialism, we try to ensure that the next time round the working class will not stop at reforms. And let the Blairites and their Tory mentors say what they like, there will be a next time!