Nationalisation is Not the Solution

Nationalisation is often proposed by state so called ‘socialists’ as the answer to some of the problems we face. At the moment it is often being put forward as a remedy to the current energy price crisis. But in this article, I attempt to lay out why nationalisation is not really a solution for the working class.

Nationalisation is often described as ‘public ownership’ but this is not the case. With nationalisation it’s not the public that owns the industries and infrastructure, it is the state and therefore the ruling class and the nationalised industries and infrastructure will be run in the interests of the ruling class and their capitalist system, not in the interests of the working class.

Nationalisation is often, wrongly, seen as socialist, however nationalising industries increases the profits of capitalists which is why it was done by the Atlee government of 1945-51 and why it has been popular with the statist left ever since. In return for their ownership of particular firms, the ruling class were given lavish compensation which could then be invested in other, more profitable industries. A good example of this was the nationalisation of the Bank of England.

Workers on the other hand, according to Herbert Morrison, could only get the benefits of social insurance, “by increasing the total national income … it could only be done by work, thought, drive and initiative.” (Times, September 6th 1945). What this meant of course was increased productivity, greater exploitation to extract more surplus value out of the working class – in return for which a few crumbs would be thrown off the bosses table.

And I’m afraid The Labour Party and the Unions were hand in hand with the bosses, aiming to extract more out of the working class by conning them that the promised land had arrived.

Notable features of the Atlee government were the building of the British atomic bomb and Hydrogen bomb, the rising of the cost of living by 30% and the demand that workers exercise ‘restraint’ and not ask for pay rises. Wartime rationing was kept in place, which ensured that money was spent not on consumption but on investment. This meant not only less for workers, but a drabber, more monotonous existence. In fact, between 1947 and 1951 working class people suffered a drop in their real wages.

The Atlee government gave little to the working class. In this it revealed once again just whose side it was on. This time its membership began more closely to reveal this fact too. In 1945 more than 40 of the Labour MPs were lawyers…… “between 20 and 30 were business men, and a good sprinkling of farmers, accountants, consulting engineers and other professions” were among the rest. Arthur Greenwood, the Labour Lord Privy Seal, said at the time, “I look around among my colleagues, and I see landlords, capitalists and lawyers. We are a cross-section of

the national life, and this is something that has never happened before. A party originally set up to protect the unions had acquired a constitution written by middle class intellectuals and was now being run by a coalition of union bureaucrats and traditional members of the ruling class.

Nationalisation is not socialism. Socialism means the common ownership of the means of production and distribution. It means getting rid of the bosses, getting rid of working for a wage or salary, getting rid of the whole rotten buying and selling system. It means that people will freely come together to produce what is needed if they can and will freely take from the abundant products of their labour. It is based on human need not on the privileges and interests of a minority and not on profit margins.

It will involve the abolition not only of the ruling class, but also their state.  It will not mean that state being replaced by a new state. It would be a decentralised and libertarian structure run from below for the common benefit of humanity. This can also be described as anarchist communist and an economy and society based on these principles is much more likely to be of real help to us and be fairer and more efficient and innovative while giving us more freedom.  

This may be new to many of you out there but it’s not a new idea and there has really always been one version of it or another that has manifested throughout human history and people are conditioned to think that it couldn’t work while also being conditioned that the best we can do is capitalism, despite the very grave problems that come along with that system and that only get worse and direr and more urgent. As for nationalisation it is just one form of state capitalism.

It is hardly surprising that the Labour Party and the unions ended up as the firmest supporters of state capitalism. Trade unions do not exist to change society, they are to get a larger slice of the capitalist cake, not take over the bakery. Indeed, without the buying and selling economy, based on wage labour, there is no role for a trade union. With no role for a trade union, there is no job for a union official.

However, the power, privileges and status of the union bureaucrats are very much determined by how much their status is recognised by the capitalist class. To protect their position, it is natural for unions to look for a more regulated capitalism, a capitalism based on partnership between employers and labour organisations. It was to achieve this that the Labour Party was set up in the first place.

Their position was recognised and they were welcomed as junior partners in the state machine during the First World War. It was a logical step for them to go beyond mere regulation and favour full blown state ownership, with the state as the major employer working in partnership with the unions.

Thus, Clause Four was adopted as a means of selling this to the working class at the same time as the Unions’ control over the party was established. Their function as part of the state machine was re-emphasised during the Second World War, and continued afterwards with the various tripartite commissions, quangos like the National Economic Development Corporation, and the routine appointment of Trade Union General Secretaries to the House of Lords.

As part of the state wanting more state control the party attracted to itself those sections of the ruling class who would benefit from it.  This helps explain the number of lawyers and other professionals in the Attlee governing party. By the 1940s even the leaders of the party came from this social group. We can clearly see that in this sense as well that the Labour Party is not a party of the working class – and yet neither are any of the state capitalist parties that claim to be socialist – they are always bourgeois in one form or another and if this is not obvious they simply become the new bourgeoise when they gain power as with the various so called revolutionary “socialist” or “communist” political parties.

By Tom Hughes 01/09/2022, adapted from Labouring In Vain: A critical History of the Labour Party by Wildcat.