At the end of World War I the Labour Party produced a blueprint for a new society.
Labour And The New Social Order (1918) pointed out that the war had not only consumed millions of lives and a large proportion of the world's accumulated wealth - it threatened the very basis of capitalist society itself.
"The individualist system of capitalist production, based on the private ownership and competitive administration of land and capital, with its reckless 'profiteering' and wage-slavery; with its glorification of the unhampered struggle for the means of life and its hypocritical pretence of the 'survival of the fittest;' with the monstrous inequality of circumstances which it produces and the degradation and brutalisation, both moral and spiritual, resulting therefrom, may, we hope, indeed have received a death-blow," it said.
Labour's new programme argued that the production and distribution of society's material wealth should be planned co-operatively in order to achieve greater equality for all.
Democracy would be extended into industry, thereby "setting free" all workers by hand or brain to serve the interests of the community rather than those of shareholders.
The Labour Party was confident that the British people would not tolerate forever the "disorganisation, waste and inefficiency involved in the abandonment of British industry to a jostling crowd of separate private employers with their minds bent not on the service of the community but - by the very law of their being - only on the utmost possible profiteering."
What was needed in the postwar period was "a genuinely scientific reorganisation of the nation's industry, no longer deflected by individual profiteering, on the basis of the common ownership of the means of production."
Instead, the postwar Liberal-Tory government returned control of the coalmines and railways to their owners, whose profits had been generously guaranteed by the state during the war years.
These monopolists then inflicted another 20 years of intensive exploitation, dangerous working conditions, industrial anarchy, social insecurity, underinvestment and profiteering on workers and the economy.
Nationalisation of Britain's basic industries after the second world war became unavoidable. Only state ownership could ensure the levels of reorganisation, rationalisation, co-ordination, planning and investment needed for reconstruction. But in order to minimise opposition to public ownership of coal, rail, road haulage, civil aviation, gas and electricity, the postwar Labour government implemented a model of nationalisation that would benefit capitalists and their system.
Generous compensation was given to private owners who had already made their fortunes running these vital industries into the ground.
For their overvalued shares and "loss" of future profits the railway magnates were given transport stock worth £1 billion, yielding 3 per cent a year over 25-40 years. The coalmine owners received £164 million in Treasury stock for their dirty, dangerous and under-mechanised mines.
Many former owners and managers were awarded senior posts in the new nationalised corporations, along with top Establishment civil servants and military personnel.
The few token "representatives" from the workers' side were invariably right-wing trade union bureaucrats - obliged in any case to serve the interests of the corporation and not its workforce.
The workers were denied any meaningful contribution to the management or progress of the industries they understood better than anyone else.
For decades those state corporations provided cheap fuel and transport services to the private sector. Their private suppliers enjoyed "cost-plus" contracts that guaranteed handsome profits - although that did not stop them defrauding the National Coal Board (NCB) and other state enterprises on an enormous scale.
These policies amounted to a strategy of "capitalist nationalisation," rather than one of expropriating the monopoly capitalists in the interests of the working class and society generally.
Limiting the possibilities for reform, the Labour model of public ownership placed the nationalised corporations beyond direct parliamentary accountability and control.
It was commonplace for ministers to refuse to answer questions from MPs about the policies of the nationalised industries on the grounds that the government had no responsibility for such matters.
During the postwar years the public corporations made enormous progress in terms of rationalising and modernising their industries.
In the first decade after nationalisation they increased their investment in fixed assets by 713 per cent compared with a 135 per cent increase in private industry. By 1958 they accounted for a third of all new capital investment in Britain with just a sixth of the private sector's funds.
Most of this public investment had to be funded from state loans and grants because the state sector's total gross operating surplus (£3.4bn) was wiped out by depreciation (£2.957bn) and interest payments (£1.466bn).
The private sector, on the other hand, doled out more than a quarter of its gross operating profits in bank interest and dividends. It would never have given the priority needed for investment in the coal, gas, electricity and railway industries.
Despite the handicaps placed on them by pro-capitalist personnel, pricing and contracting policies - and by a laudable social obligation to provide universal services - most of the state corporations turned in a gross operating surplus much of the time.
The electricity and gas boards accumulated a net surplus of £578m in the 20 years from nationalisation (to 1966), even after providing for depreciation, compensation and taxation. The coal board incurred a net deficit of just £116m. Over the same period these corporations invested £7bn in fixed assets.
Between 1975 and 1978, the NCB, the British Gas Corporation, the electricity boards, the Post Office, the British Airways Board, British Airports Authority, British Railways Board, British Transport Docks Board, National Bus Company and British Aerospace were all highly profitable.
But there were also periods when the NCB, the British Railways Board and the British Steel Corporation made heavy losses after taking depreciation and interest payments into account.
For example a gross surplus on the railways of £363m between 1948 and 1957 was turned into a net loss of £224m after depreciation (£349m) and interest related to compensation (£238m). Between 1960 and 1968 - and after Beeching's mass closure of "uneconomic" lines, the railways board still made a gross operating loss every year.
An annual passenger grant then supplemented an occasional gross surplus, but depreciation and compensation costs kept railways in the red. Furthermore such state support for the railways lagged way behind that given by other governments in Europe to their nationalised railway industries.
Of course, the big business lobbies and their press and politicians either ignored public-sector profits or attacked them as a punitive tax on private enterprise and consumers.
So-called "losses," on the other hand, were seized upon by the Daily Mail, Daily Express and other papers as evidence of public ownership's costliness alongside its bureaucratic inefficiency and oppressiveness.
Britain's monopoly capitalists rarely pressed for privatisation before Thatcher's election victory in 1979, except for steel and road haulage. But they were always on guard against steps to nationalise the more profitable and modern sectors of the economy.
Waging the battle of ideas in favour of "private ownership" remained important, even as public ownership - a form of "state capitalism" - helped rebuild Britain's capitalist economy.
In today's Britain the privatised monopolies are every bit as wasteful, exploitative, anarchic and profiteering as those of the pre-Great War and interwar periods.
Moreover, in the 21st century, monopoly capitalist control of the energy and transport sectors means that two new and mortal crises facing humanity - energy supplies and global warming - meet with no rational response.
Robert Griffiths is general secretary of the Communist Party of Britain.
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