From Fourth International, Vol.12 No.3, May-June 1951, pp.70-71.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
Aneurin Bevan’s resignation from the British Labor government created no less a sensation than MacArthur’s dismissal from his Far East command. The root causes of both events are the same – the undiminishing resistance of the world’s masses to the impending imperialist war and their growing challenge to the whole capitalist order. In this sense, Bevan’s move in England came as if to emphasize that MacArthur’s removal was the least that the ruling circles could do in America.
The former Minister of Health’s break with the Attlee cabinet came over the new government budget, because it provided a partial charge for false teeth and eyeglasses which had previously been furnished gratis under the “cradle to grave” social insurance law. In reality, this was only the immediate spur. For the cut in the health grant, although relatively insignificant in itself, was undertaken flagrantly to balance the outlay for war preparations. In his resignation speech to the House of Commons Bevan bluntly charged that the Chancellor of the Exchequer “stole 100,000,000 pounds a year from the National Insurance Fund. So that the rearmament of Great Britain is financed out of the contributions that the workers have paid into the fund.” This was being done by “a Socialist Chancellor of the Exchequer,” he protested, “at a time when there were still untouched sources of wealth in Great Britain.” To those who had been saying that he was “quarreling about trivialities,” he retorted sharply: “I remember the triviality that started the avalanche of 1931.”
In other words, Bevan was announcing to the world that in his opinion the Labor government was undertaking a rearmament program at the expense of the workers and which left the wealth of the capitalists virtually untouched – a course similar to that of the Ramsay Macdonald government in the economic crisis of 1931, which has become engraved in the memory of British labor as The Great Betrayal.
The former Minister did not directly reject the armaments program as such, or the foreign policy of alliance with American imperialism as such. Together with his cabinet colleagues, he had been committed to these government policies step by step since 1946. But in this same speech he revealed the insoluble dilemma in coupling these policies with any kind of economic planning of benefit to the mass of the people, indeed even with the program of social reformism itself.
“It is now perfectly clear to anyone who examines the matter objectively,” he said, “ – the lurchings of the American economy, the extravagance and unpredictable behavior of the production machine ... has already caused a vast inflation of prices all over the world. It has disturbed the economy of the Western world to such an extent that if it goes on more damage will be done by this unrestrained behavior than by the behavior of the nation the arms are intended to restrain.”
He warned that American stockpiling was already creating world shortages of raw materials essential to production; that it was making all planning figures obsolete because of the incessant inflation that is its consequence; that this means mass unemployment (“we have already in Great Britain under-employment”); that the pace of the armaments race was such, “the foundations of political liberty and parliamentary democracy will not be able to sustain the shock.” His conclusion was equally sharp even if it lacked a positive counter-program:
“We have allowed ourselves to be dragged too far behind the wheels of American diplomacy. This great nation has a message for the world which is distinct from that of America or the Soviet Union ... It is from here that we can tell the world where to go, but not to follow behind American capitalism, unable to restrain itself at all ...”
Bevan thus put his finger on the chief running sore in the world today: the “unrestrained and unpredictable behavior of the production machine of American capitalism” with its insatiable thirst for markets and sources of raw materials that underlies the rapacious politics of world conquest conducted from Washington. He went along, perhaps grudgingly, so long as this affected only the masses of Asia, ominously stormy in their postwar upsurge. When the course of US capitalism began to undermine directly the program for the masses of Great Britain, upon which the existence of the Labor Party rests, Bevan demurred.
“I have always said that the defense program must always be sustained (a) with the maintenance of the standards of life of the British people and (b) with the maintenance of the social services. Since it became clear that we have engaged upon an arms program inconsistent with these considerations, I could no longer remain a member of the Government.”
Bevan, in thus resigning, and Attlee, in accepting the resignation, make evident the ultimate bankruptcy of the vaunted Social Democratic “road to socialism.” No one can deny that in England this solution – of gradually transforming the social system by agreement with the capitalist class – had an unprecedented, if not ideal, opportunity. The Labor Party won complete majorities in two elections, an overwhelming one in 1945 and a slim but still adequate one in 1950. It has moved unhampered to the nationalization of 20 per cent of industry and established a social security service more rounded than any hitherto known.
But in the rearmament crisis its ties to capitalism prove no less strong and no less decisive than those of the minority Labor government of Macdonald in the economic crisis of 1931 or those of the many other Social Democratic governments on the European continent in the recurring crises after the first world war. The whole trend of “gradualism” is being sharply reversed. That is the unmistakable significance of the latest government budget in London. Bevan is incontrovertibly right in pointing out the fact.
It is highly doubtful that Bevan’s break is motivated by a conscious realization of this dilemma or that he personally will draw the full logical consequences from it in a revolutionary socialist direction. But his resignation is symptomatic of the maturing crisis in the broad British labor movement. There was a full scale revolt against the leadership at the Trade Union Congress last September which overthrew the wage freeze that had been in force since the last war. There was incipient revolt against the Government’s foreign policy and pressing demands for workers’ control of the nationalized industries as well as for sharper inroads on capitalist profits at the last Labor Party conference in October. Mass demonstrations of tens of thousands day after day before the court house brought about the acquittal of the leaders of the wild cat dock workers’ strikes, whom the Labor government sought to incarcerate for illegal conspiracy. The antiwar feeling, directed at American capitalism, was made evident at a number of informal conferences of Labor Party and trade union bodies called by the left wing “Socialist Fellowship.”
All these indications of a brewing storm could not have been lost on Aneurin Bevan, whose background as a militant Welsh miner and “Left Wing” member of parliament has long made him one of the most popular figures in the working class. Bevan realized that the Attlee government’s attack on the social gains made by the workers meant the risk of a break with the mass base of the Labor Party. His resignation shows that he has decided not to risk that break.
Within the British working class, Bevan’s resignation has called forth considerable support despite the organized hue and cry of the Labor leadership against the “splitters.” Bevan himself has received what amounts to triumphal acclamation from the miners throughout Wales, which he is touring. While the Scottish leadership of the trade unions revoked an invitation to him to speak at their congress in May, the congress itself rejected the leaders’ support of the government budget and backed the policies espoused by Bevan by an overwhelming majority. It is clear that the Bevan resignation is the prelude to a struggle for leadership and a change of course in the Labor Party whose repercussions will be world-wide in their effect.
Last updated on: 24 March 2009