It is rather obvious that
nationalisation is a process that involves some entity
appropriating the property of another entity for the
advantage of yet another entity. Who are these entities?
Clearly the first is a nation-state; while the second
is assuredly the property of private individuals of
means, or congeries of the same, such as joint-stock
The third are ostensibly the people!
The historic origins
This immediately restricts the phenomenon in modern
times to only a very few countries until recently.
The nation-state really only came about with the great
cycle of revolutions that created the modern bourgeois
world, the Dutch War of Independence, the English
Civil War and the French Revolution, which all involved
massive popular participation, prefiguring democracy.
As an authoritarian reaction there came about the
unifications of Italy and Germany, with rather different
In the first three cases of revolution, they involved
revolts against absolutist states - in the latter
two the recreation of them, those of Piedmont and
Prussia, in a new more inclusive form, becoming precisely
Italy and Germany. Their economies were all converting
or being converted to free market capitalism, involving
private ownership of vast amounts of property - and
yet at the other end of the social scale a lot of
poverty and deprivation, more especially in the underclass,
the workless and the joyless.
The Industrial Revolution was under way, with a huge
polarisation of society as a consequence. In these
perilous circumstances it is hardly surprising that
there were those who advocated condign expropriation
of the rich for redistribution of their property to
the poor. The first stage of this planned social redemption
was to be precisely nationalisation, as a prelude
to universal emancipation.
In The idea cropped up all over the place, notably
in the great cycle of revolutions in France from 1789,
through 1830 and 1848 to 1871.
But none of them came off. There was something impractical
in the implementation of the same. That is as regards
Yet there were prescient
people who understood that socialism, viz nationalisation,
had a future all the same. They were not in their
own persons true believers; far from it. But they
understood that a historic phenomenon of no small
proportions was in the making.
Hence Heine in the 1840s when he knew Marx, but did
not share his radical sentiments: “Communism is at
the moment lurking in the dingy garrets of obscure
intellectuals. But one day it will turn the world
upside down. What will be the consequences of that
I do not know.”
Then Nietzsche in the 1880s: “Socialism (then much
the same as Communism) has a great career ahead of
it. It will do better and better. But however well
it does, the reaction against it will prove to be
the stronger. And that will be the defining moment
of human civilisation.”
The latter is perhaps the mos t brilliant prophecy
ever made. But then it was made by an intellectual
titan, who also, before he went quite mad in 1889,
prophesied that the twentieth century would be one
of world wars ('when the blonde Teutonic beast goes
on the rampage the the world will shudder'), culminating
in the greatest ideological battle of all time, the
Cold War, but subsiding as a massive anticlimax into
an endless vista of Anglo-Saxon suburbia.
Nietzsche foresaw that war would bring extreme solutions
to the fore. The advent of war in 1914 gave a fantastic
boost to nationalism – and hence to ideas of nationalisation
as the answer to many a problem in a people's extremity!
The First World War gave the fanatics and the revolutionaries
their chance. The war was being fought after all by
the one indisputably nationalised ins titution, the
army. Actually the armed forces as a whole. The people
were being mobilised as never before – ostensibly
f or national survival and regeneration – but why
not for an even greater cause?
The Bolshevik Revolution
In 1917 came violent eruptions in the East. First
came the tumult – then the downfall of an autocracy
- that in Russia no less - in February of that year.
Then there came a most momentous event in human history,
the October Bolshevik Revolution. This involved, after
various shifts and turns, inter alia, the first extended
attempt in history to implement a planned, totally
The nationalisation of industry, the collectisation
of agriculture, the common ownership of everything
was proclaimed and decreed. It didn't quite work out.
Indeed it led, not to the enrichment of the multitude,
but to the pauperisation of the entire society, excepting
the ideologues in charge. Even they had only a furtive,
indeed frugal, prosperity. A dire time for all.
Marx would have been horrified beyond belief at the
consequences of his ideas being implemented in Russia,
a country he always despised. So did Engels.
The very idea that the birth of human liberation should
have taken place in the very citadel of tyranny, 'the
prisoner of nationalities,' would have revolted him.
So, indeed, t he ultimate irony, did it the very people
who set this absurd project up, Lenin and Trotsky.
If there was one thing that these brilliant intellectuals,
westerners to the core of their being, shared with
Marx and Engels, it was supreme contempt for the backwardness
of the Russian world and all it stood for. It all
ended up with Stalin and his infernal cult, Stalinism,
the very antithesis of everything they believed in
and fought for. An obscurantist Oriental dispensation
of fanatics, which led straight to the Gulag and untold
But they we re not all untold – Solzhenitsyn to the
fore is the supreme exemplar of the human spirit in
a crisis. He bore witness to the terrors and crimes
– and to the effect!
The end-story here comes with 1989 and the collapse
of communism. But this was only with the totalitarian
version of the protean idea of a planned utopia.
There was always an alternative vision – to combine
the sublime socialist ideas with democracy.
There is no=2 0starker statement of intent here than
the notorious Clause Four of the Labour Party in the
very cradle of the Industrial Revolution, the UK,
the very place that the Marxists hoped and expected
it would all happen. It called for “the socialisation
of the means of production, distribution and exchange.”
It was always intensely controversial, threatening
a political revolution even more comprehensive than
the industrial one.
However, its proponents in the UK were the Fabians,
people of high moral character, mostly of upper class
or middle class origin, truly appalled at the distressed
condition of the working class and even more of the
unemployed and destitute beneath them. But they preached
“the inevitability of gradualism,” along the lines
of Fabius, the Roman general who confounded Hannibal,
the great Carthaginian general, a titan of ancient
history, by tactical retreats, drawing his adversary
in, beyond the Alps, to lowland terrain more favourable
for the Roman forces. The Fabians were opposed to
revolution, just as Fabius was opposed to a frontal
So was Keir Hardie, the founder of the Labour Party,
a party admitted to power because of the advent of
democracy. the advance of which, he thought, would
be supported by all those of good will, in all classes
The admixture of Mill
The magisterial admonition and rebuttal of Clause
Four was administered avant la lettre by no less a
figure than John Stuart Mill, a prodigy beyond compare,
fluent in Latin and Greek at twelve, proficient in
French and German at fifteen, several languages thereafter.
This is what the sage had to say:
"If the roads, the railways, the banks, the insurance
offices, the great joint-stock companies, the universities,
and the public charites, were all of them the branches
of the government; if, in addition, the municipal
corporations and local boards, with all that now devolves
on them, became departments of the central administration;
if the employees of all these enterprises were appointed
and paid for by the government, and looked to government
for every rise in life; not all the freedom of the
press and popular constitution of the legislature
would make this or any other country free otherwise
than in name."
The Labour experiment
As it so happened, unusual circumstances brought about
the most extended attempt at nationalisation in a
democratic country in history, in the UK in 1945.
It had just won the Second World War, albeit with
the mighty assistance of the Soviet Union and of the
The USSR was of course wedded to socialism and nationalisation
in its most extreme form, full-scale state ownership
of everything. The US was totally opposed to any such
The UK precisely by being the least powerful and the
most recessive of the Big Three, evidently about to
disband a world empire, was also the most intriguing
and attractive of them all for third parties. Was
there to be a middle way?
There is no doubt that the overwhelming victory of
the Labour Party in 1945 was an astonishing event,
that gripped the world. Here was a victorious nation
which elected a government to institute nationalisation.
Clement Atlee, the premier, to his great credit, appointed
to the most important post of all a political adversary
hitherto, Nye Bevan, a Welsh gadfly, He became minister
of health and housing. He delivered, both a nationalised
health service, the NHS, and 800,000 houses. His civil
servants, who were by no means his ideological allies,
esteemed him as the best minister they had ever worked
for, on top of his brief, decisive and yet flexible.
He won over the doctors to his nationalisation, a
notoriously conservative profession. He got the private
construction companies to cooperate in his national
plan for housing.
He had his failings; his very gift of the gab (he
was the best orator of his generation who would always
fill the chamber in the House of Commons), could lead
him to go over the top in his invective, comparing
Churchill to Hitler, an unforgivable insult, saying
that the Tories were lower than vermin, etc. But he
was a great British character, who showed that you
could have a romantic imagination and yet be an effective
administrator of a national plan to boot.
He was the great success story of the Atlee government,
who has left us a rich legacy in the NHS and well
planned and capacious council houses (he insisted
there should be two toilet amenities in each dewlling).
He was widely mourned at his early death at 60 in
1960, the best Labour prime minister we never had.
The Atlee government also nationalised the means of
transport, railways, roads and canals. It nationalised
electric power, iron and steel. It even nationalised
the Bank of England. Stalin was amazed and observed
that you can introduce socialism into Great Britain,
with a King of England as head of state, so long as
you have democracy! Too dangerous a phenomenon, he
concluded, for his own domains!
The UK government also gave national independence
to India, Pakistan, Ceylon and Burma, starting a process
of decolonisation, and consequent nationalisation,
across the globe. A great and historic government.
It unfortunately held aloo f from the burgeoning European
Community, an understandable act of hubris in a country
that had just clinched victory in D-day on June 6,
1944 in the greatest war in history. Of course there
has been a nemesis to pay thereafter - but that is
The aftermath of nationalisation; privatisation
This revolution in world affairs in due course set
off a collosal counter-revolution, the craze for privatisation
that enveloped the globe, f rom 1979 onwards, with
the advent of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.
Like them or loathe them, they were a formidable pair
of political operators. Thatcher had the brilliant
idea of selling off the council houses that Nye Bevan
h ad begun to build, to the very people occupying
them. A property-owning democracy came into being
that rewarded her with three successive electoral
victories. This was turning the tables on Labour with
a vengeance. Who were the true democrats now?
Privatisation – namely denationalisation - became
Every bit of public property was up for sale, the
railways, the mail, the public utilities, the lot
– excepting of course the monarchy and the armed forces
– God saved the Queen from the depredations and depravity
of the privatisers!
The new world disorder
The newly privatised economies of the Anglo-Saxon
world (the idea had spread to Australasia as well)
contained their own instability, however. They were
prone to real estate and property booms that, under
the impact of new extensive forms of credit, sub-prime
mortgages, light-touch regulation and the like, got
right out of control and ushered in the crisis of
the world economy today.
Things have in a sense come full circle. Governments
are bailing out their more feckless banks and financial
institutions in a sort of backdoor nationalisation.
Sweden prefigured this whole development a decade
ago. There an outright formal nationalisation took
place, but in an unideological, pragmatic manner.
The banks there were recapitalised and restructured
by highy trained technocrats and managers, before
being sold back to the private sector. This model
perhaps provides the way out of the crisis elsewhere
too – a wave of temporary nationalisation.
How temporary, time will tell.
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