Peter Sedgwick

Liquidating the Thirties

(January 1961)

Peter Sedgwick, Liquidating the Thirties, New Left Review. No.7, January-February 1961, p.67 (review)
© 1961 New Left Review. Reproduced with kind permission of the copyright holders.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

History of Socialist Thought, Vol. 5: by G.D.H. Cole, Macmillan. 35s.

“Jäger; Juarès, J.; Johannsen, A.; Jovanóvic, D.; Jowett, F.W.; Justo, Gen.; MacDonald, R.; Macek, V.; Machow, R.; Macia, Col.; Malatesta, E.; Malenkov, G.; ...” The very index to Cole’s History bubbles with compendious and intriguing scholarship. It should, by now, need no saying that there is no other work to compare with the internationalist erudition and clear-headed analysis of Cole’s narrative. Particularly indispensable are the sections on Latin America and China, and the final conspectus, Looking Forwards And Backwards, which points the moral to all seven books of the History.

Socialism And Fascism should go far towards exploding the nostalgic myth of the Red Thirties. Only in Spain and France, and then temporarily, did the working class movement as a whole make any tangible gains. Scandinavia, as Cole makes clear, is very much a special case. Elsewhere in Europe, reaction triumphed outright over Socialism; either through the brute force of Fascism (Austria, Germany) or the dead weight of a subservient popular consciousness (practically everywhere else). Where revisionist concessions à la Crosland were made to appease the right-wing mood (Belgium, Holland, Switzerland), there was no significant response, or an actual decline in mass support. As for Britain, Cole corrects the record with a shattering outline of Labour Party and TUC policy in the decade. The Left seems never to have mustered as many as half a million votes in the struggle over the United Front.

Other reviewers have pointed out the remarkable absence from the book of any very detailed account of Socialist thought (which, after all, is what the title states to be the theme). The Chapter on China is the exception, containing as it does a very full treatment of Mao’s particular variety of “substitutionism”. This omission is predominantly the fault of the Thirties rather than of their historian. The decade produced a good deal of effective journalism and popularisation, but very little theoretical originality. The pressures of the Popular Front worked to squeeze out any consideration of the more awkward problems of power. Even Cole’s own socialist pluralism seems to have suffered a public eclipse at the time.

The distorting commitments of the Front operated, of course. over a very wide range within the Labour Movement. Stalinist mythology was largely accepted by the broad Left and centre, from Tribune as far Right as Attlee. Cole’s judgements on the Soviet Union and the Spanish Civil War, formed in Litvinov’s hey-day, appear to have been remarkably resistant to disillusionment. These Chapters have the flavour of a Thirties document, upholding the loyalties of the time against all comers, rather than a mature retrospect.

In the final chapter, we are treated to a fascinating resumé of all the different currents of Socialist Thought since 1796. Babeuf, Owen, Fourier, Saint-Simon, Louis Blanc, Lassalle, Marx and Bakunin, Syndicalists, Social-Democrats and Communists, all are held up to brief but considered inspection, judged implicitly or explicitly, but always in compassion, and placed in a historical context. Once again, the treatment of Communism is the least satisfactory of all, not (as certain reviewers have tended to imply) because Cole was any kind of fellow-traveller, but because the critique is couched in traditionally liberal terms, which assume the existence in the West of universal popular access to political power. Further, the Communist use of the vocabulary of class is taken at its face value, as implying the prevalence of the “collective” (as opposed to the “individual”) rights and values in the Soviet bloc. But once a particular “collectivism” is seen as bureaucratic, it surely becomes based on a bogus “collective”.

Cole’s entire History may be viewed as a vast meditation, extending widely across time and space, on, the nature of Socialism. It is no accident that, concurrently with its production, Cole became engaged in practical internationalism (with the formation of the International Society for Socialist Studies) and in the reassessment of the Socialism of diffused responsibility and workers’ control. (We may even suspect that his investigation of Bakunin had quite a lot to do with his advocacy, in 1954, of socialisation through a prolonged inheritance tax.) The conclusion to his Postscript will give scant comfort to his ex-colleagues on Fabian and Transport House committees: “I am neither a Communist nor a Social-Democrat, because I regard both as creeds of centralisation and bureaucracy.” The New Left has often been tempted to claim him as a patron, but perhaps it would be more accurate to say that we have caught up with him, about fifty years late.

Peter Sedgwick


Last updated on 21.11.2004