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What does ‘for the many, not the few’ mean – and is this socialism?

The mantra of Corbyn's Labour Party has deep roots in the history of the left, and even greater implications for how we might bring about socialism in the modern day, writes the MARX MEMORIAL LIBRARY

THERE are two good questions here.  Let’s start by examining where the phrase “for the many, not the few” comes from.  It’s become more prominent – indeed, a slogan for the Labour Party – since Jeremy Corbyn’s election as its leader in September 2015.  

But the origins of the phrase go back at least two centuries to the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley’s The Masque of Anarchy, written in 1819 following the Peterloo Massacre on August 16, when mounted cavalry with drawn sabres charged a demonstration of some 80,000 people in St Peter’s Field, Manchester, who had gathered to demand the vote. Fifteen people were killed and some 700 were injured.

The Masque (or Mask) of Anarchy is a long poem but worth reading. The final stanza (read by Corbyn to almost 120,000 people at the Glastonbury Festival in 2017) goes:

“Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number,
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you -
Ye are many - they are few.”

But the phrase “for the many, not the few” was not adopted by Corbyn. Its use as a slogan is perfectly legitimate as it has formed part of the Labour Party’s constitution since 1995, when it was introduced in much less auspicious circumstances.  

The Labour Party’s first constitution, in 1918 – a century after Shelly’s Mask of Anarchy – set out the party’s aims and core values. 

Clause IV (part 4) included the aim: “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, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.”

The declaration formed the basis of Labour’s commitment to public ownership which was massively endorsed following the end of the second world war in its election victory of 1945 with state control of the Bank of England, followed by the creation of the National Coal Board, a National Health Service and nationalisation of railways, canals, road haulage, electricity, iron, steel and gas industries.  Alongside nationalisation came a variety of other forms of “common ownership” including municipal undertakings of various kinds, and worker and consumer co-operatives.

Despite their popularity – and success – publicly owned undertakings were continually attacked from representatives of capital and progressively undermined by the right within the Labour Party itself. Following Labour’s defeat in the 1959 general election, Blair’s predecessor Hugh Gaitskell attempted to amend Clause IV but was defeated by the Labour left, who, symbolically, secured the inclusion of the text of part 4 on the party’s membership cards. 

In 1995, as leader of the Labour Party, Tony Blair succeeded where Gaitskell had failed 36 years before and completely rewrote Clause IV, replacing “common ownership” with “common endeavour” in a key section which reads:

“The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party. It believes that by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone, so as to create for each of us the means to realise our true potential and for all of us a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many, not the few. Where the rights we enjoy reflect the duties we owe.  And where we live together, freely, in a spirit of solidarity, tolerance and respect.”

Blair’s Foreword to Labour’s 1997 election manifesto declared its aim “to put behind us the bitter political struggles of left and right that have torn our country apart for too many decades. Many of these conflicts have no relevance whatsoever to the modern world – public versus private, bosses versus workers, middle class versus working class. It is time for this country to move on and move forward.”

More than two decades and two Tory-led governments later, as inequality and the gap between the many and the few grows ever wider, the hollowness of Blair’s version of a common endeavour – encompassing bosses and workers, eliding public and private – becomes daily clearer. However as it does so, and with Corbyn’s election, the phrase “for the many, not the few” assumes a new role and meaning.  

It has become the umbrella for campaigns against those very policies and trends that Thatcher’s Tories, facilitated by Blair and New Labour, did so much to further; campaigns against inequality and injustice and for struggles for ”a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many.” And it has become also the focus for a debate about how such a society might be achieved and what form it might take.

As part of those struggles, the need for common ownership of key industries and sectors – starting with protecting what we have (education, the NHS) and progressing to taking back water, energy and transport utilities, is once again becoming clearer and more central to society.

So: in answer to the first question, all socialists would agree that all policies, national, local and international, should work “for the many, not the few” but it is up to us to argue, convincingly, that this means socialism, starting, though by no means ending, with common ownership.

But perhaps we should end with two points. The first is that whilst a privileged and powerful “few” remain, exploiting the many, we don’t have socialism. 

Blair and Brown both claimed that their policies favouring financial capitalists would produce a trickle-down effect benefiting the “many” and Theresa May argues that the Conservatives need to “be a party not for the few, not even for the many, but for everyone in our country who works hard and plays by the rules.”

And you can bet that once a left Labour government is elected, dedicated to furthering the interests of the many, the few – let’s give them a more accurate name: capitalists, exploiters with control over the livelihoods of working-class people and their families – “the few” will fight back with all the means, fair and foul (mainly foul) at their disposal. 

In fact (of course) they’re already doing so, as the increasingly vitriolic attacks on Corbin and other left Labour leaders demonstrate. It will be necessary, in the immortal words of Mat Coward – journalist, crime writer, children’s novelist and the Morning Star’s very own gardening correspondent – to “chop off their capital.”

Secondly, and returning to Shelley, any significant change will need to be secured by the many, it cannot be done, piecemeal, for the many, from above. 

People will need to work collectively, to shake off their own chains.  The limitations of “parliamentary socialism” have become only too clear. One of the real strengths of changes within today’s Labour Party is the realisation that campaigning to win a parliamentary majority is not enough; it needs to be accompanied by extra-parliamentary struggle, in communities and workplaces throughout the country – something that Corbyn himself has consistently understood. 

Irrespective of Brexit; in or out, implementing and sustaining a truly socialist programme of “for the many, not the few” will be one of the biggest challenges the left in Britain has ever faced. 

A major programme of lectures, discussions and events, including on-line education courses, starts shortly at the Marx Memorial Library and Workers’ School.  For details see



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