Ted Grant

Bevan and the Crisis in the Labour Party

Source: The International Socialist, vol. 1 no. 2 (April-May 1952)
Transcription: Francesco 2009
Proofread: Fred 2009
Markup: Manuel 2009

Two divergent wings are beginning to develop inside the Labour Party. For the first time since the war, we see the beginnings of a serious opposition which portends a challenge to the policy adopted by the leadership. Fifty-seven M.P.s voted against the Tory motion of endorsement for the rearmament programme. In this, they reflect the deep dissatisfaction of the rank and file members of the Trade Unions and the Labour Party with the policy of the official Labour Movement, which trails behind that of British Imperialism and big business. In tabling an amendment merely expressing doubts as to the capacity of the Tories to carry out the rearmament programme, the Labour leaders revealed that there was no essential difference between the Tory foreign policy and the one which they had carried out when in power. As the Times of March 6th commented on Attlee’s Parliamentary speech of the previous day:

“The Opposition were all agreed that we must build up our defences. He frankly said that there were differences about the extent. The Opposition were supporting the provision which the Government proposed to make, but they were entirely distrustful of the ability of the present Government to carry it out.”

In an earlier debate. Churchill, with adroit tactics and malicious enjoyment, protested in Parliament (Times, February 27th) when defending himself against the charges of war-mongering and of going too far in his statements to Congress “There is no change in our policy towards the U.S., the United Nations, or the war in Korea. Other circumstances might justify action not confined to Korea. We have only followed and conformed (our emphasis) to the policy for which the late Government were responsible…”

Quite “unsportingly” he referred to secret agreements with the Americans, which had been accepted by Morrison, Attlee and other Labour leaders without any consultation with the Labour M.P.s, let alone the ordinary members of the Labour Party. Naturally this disgusted large numbers of back benchers and the rank and file. Attlee, Morrison and the other leaders in the Cabinet had been saying one thing in public and committing themselves in secret diplomacy to the opposite. This could not but arouse disquiet among the Labour supporters.

Labour leaders’ quandary

In these circumstances the Labour leaders, under pressure from the working class, found they were in a quandary in attempting to differentiate themselves from Tory-capitalist reaction. Hence the feeble amendment which Churchill derided as ludicrous, coupled as it was with support of broad policy.

Against a background of cuts, rising prices, health charges, increase in fares, the burdens being imposed on the masses are resulting in the sweeping away of the gains made in the first period of the post-war Labour Government. It is frustration and worry over the gradual undermining of the workers’ standards by the Tories which has slowly been developing an explosive discontent industrially and politically.

£5,200 million Arms’ Programme

At the same time as these new sacrifices are being demanded from the masses in the name of peace and security, a colossal burden of arms is being piled up. The White Paper of February 21st estimated the expenditure on defence for the year 1951-52 as £1,131,500,000, and £1,462,200,000 for the year 1952-53. From the latter must be subtracted £85,000,000 in American assistance, which leaves £1,377,200,000. The programme of the Labour Government, for the expenditure of £4,700,000,000 in three years, because of the rise in prices, would be equal to £5,200,000,000. Nevertheless the programme for 1952-53 which would have cost £1,500,000,000 at 1950 prices is to cost £38,000,000 less at current price levels, while costs have risen by about 10 percent. This represents a reduction of 10 percent, on the original time schedule of three years.

Churchill in Parliament pointed out, however, that the original programme is much more likely to be carried out in four years rather than in three. This now means a reduction of the rate of rearmament by 25 percent each year. Such a slowing down has been imposed on the Government by the physical impossibility of carrying out the original programme in the time scheduled and the danger of economic collapse.

This burden of militarism, of the state machine, threatens to devour a great part of the fruits of the labour of the working class in re-building and re-equipping British industry. The rearmament programme threatens to undermine the fabric of Britain’s economy and the gains of the working class under the Labour Government.

Bevan reflects discontent

However, the gathering discontent of the workers was already being made manifest in the Labour Party round the rearmament issue under the Labour Government itself. This feeling was expressed and came into the open by the resignation of Bevan, Freeman and Wilson from office. The inevitable opposition of the members to the reactionary policies of the right wing found their vent in the pushing of Bevan and other Labour M.P.s to the left.

The rank and file of the Labour Party want a clear home and foreign programme which will give them a socialist way out leading to peace, plenty and security for all. The need for such cannot be filled by a one-sided stress of one or other aspect, even of major policy. Home and foreign policy are indissolubly connected. A clear stand on one cannot be obtained without a clear policy on the other.

The revolt of the fifty-seven M.P.s marks a stage in the necessary rearmament of the Labour Party, if it is to fulfil the function for which it was formed:—to secure the transformation of British society. It is the beginning of a struggle against policies which are leading the Labour movement and the country to the edge of catastrophe. In that sense it is a welcome reawakening of the socialist consciousness of the Party.

Programme vague

Nevertheless the Bevan programme is to a certain extent inconsistent. The cuts they themselves suggested a year ago, in order, so they maintained, to avoid crippling the economy, have been executed—and more—by the Tories, when they reduced the arms rate. Thus Bevan and his friends have made this difference not one of principle (in fact they have accepted most of the case for rearmament, only objecting to the pace and scale on which it was to be carried out), but purely one of arithmetic and practicality. As Tom Driberg said in Reynolds News (March 9th) of the fifty-seven: “All of us (except the pacifists, whose position is understood and respected) agreed that some rearmament was necessary.”

In sober fact, in accepting the whole basis for rearmament, without a fundamental alternative from a social, political and economic standpoint, Bevan and the M.P.s who support him are offering nothing but a milder version of Attlee’s programme. Typical of this is Bevan’s article in the Daily Mirror, February 27th, 1952, where he says:

“There is nothing in this picture (capitalist greed and mismanagement, shortage of food and raw materials) that would suggest that the Labour Party should pause in its programme of transferring more industries and services to public ownership. On the contrary evidence piles up to show that unrestricted pursuit of private gain is opposed to any hope of reasonable progress in the material aspect of our lives.” (His emphasis.)

Into such a programme one can read anything one wishes, it does not commit him to any concrete measures due to its lack of clarity and precision.

Fifty-seven not homogeneous

That the Bevan movement is not clear on its programme is shown by the composition of the fifty-seven M.P.s who voted with him. The Times in their editorial of March 7th, 1952, assessing the opposition in the Labour Party from the capitalist point of view remarked on the fact that they are not a homogeneous grouping:

“There are pacifists and the survivors of the old I.L.P. tradition; the intellectuals, like Mr. Crossman himself, whose views on foreign policy have chopped and changed so often since 1945 that no one can be quite sure where he will stand next; the band of left-wing malcontents who, in spite of their frequent and vociferous interventions, never have the slightest influence on policy and never add significantly to their numbers; the pamphleteers, who serve their purpose in a left-wing party, but whose influence and power are negligible; and a collection of displaced persons, some of whom would fit more happily into the right wing of their party but who now and then lose their moorings and drift into the most unlikely company.

“If this group of Labour M.P.s tried to put forward a positive motion of their own on the question of rearmament, they would find it extremely difficult—if not impossible—to agree on terms.” (Our emphasis.)

Industrial action

At the same time in common with the right-wing Trade Union and Labour leaders, Bevan has come out strongly in opposition to any extra-Parliamentary movement of protest against the attacks of the Tory Government. As he said on February 25th in the House of Commons: “I have received requests quite recently to address many large meetings of members of Trade Unions who want to take industrial action in order to influence the decision of this House,” and went on, “I deplore that. I believe it would be a profound mistake for the Trade Union masses of this country by direct political action to try to influence the course of Parliamentary legislation.”

The right-wing Trade Union and Labour Party leaders, and Bevan all use the fact that the “Communist” Party for its own ends is attempting to whip up agitation on this question and in that sense, they all endeavour to hold back the development of the workers’ initiative, in action, against the Tory provocation.

Need for a Left Wing

Nevertheless, the coming struggles against the Tories must find their reflection in the Labour Party. The rank and file see in the policy of Bevan a striving for an alternative to that of the dead hand of officialdom in the Labour Party and Trade Unions. At this stage it cannot be expected that the left wing, moving away from the bankrupt policy of the leadership should have a fully worked-out programme, clear and consistent. Undoubtedly the majority of the rank and file in the Trade Union branches, wards and divisional Labour Parties, support Bevan as an invigorating contrast to what amounts to a bi-partisan policy on rearmament.

The fear and dismay with which the right-wing officials regard this development is indicated by the vicious attack of Arthur Deakin against Bevan on purely personal grounds. Instead of contrasting the two differing policies, whether correct or incorrect, we have a meaningless diatribe on the ambitions and egoism of Bevan, which have little to do with the issue. The Bevanites effectively answered in Tribune by challenging Deakin to counterpose the two programmes in its pages. The attempt to silence Bevan and his friends by the subjective approach on the one hand and to use the bludgeon of the threat of discipline in the other (which would force Labour M.P.s to vote for Tory policy), are symptomatic of the fears of the right wing.

The latter fear the deep discontent still simmering within the ranks of the Labour Party and that Bevan and his friends will act as a focal point around which the left wing of the Labour Party may crystallise. Once the full flood of events reveals the impasse into which the movement has been led by the acceptance of its policies it must result in mass disillusionment. It is not so much, the programme of Bevan of which they are afraid but of the way in which the masses will rally at any rate in the beginning to organise opposition around its banner.

The way out

It is true, that no more than the policy of the right wig, can the policy offered by Bevan (itself one of bits and pieces) be a solution to the economic and social problems facing Britain. The programme put forward by Tribune reflects confusion and vagueness. Bevanism offers no real answer to these problems. A cut of £250.000,000 out of the colossal figure of £1,377,200,000 net for 1952-53 and they would accept apparently even the Tory arms programme. This £250,000,000 to be used in constructive capital investment so that Britain will be in a stronger position to compete on the world market.

“Mr. Crossman said if we could switch about £250 million from armaments to exports and capital investment on exports, we might get over the crisis by a narrow margin. (Our emphasis.) If we did that and asked America to supply us with £250,000,000 more arms it would equal one-tenth of their export surplus. If the choice was to retard the programme or be bankrupt, it was about time we began to retard the programme, however gravely it might inconvenience the Chiefs of Staff.” (Times, March 6th.)

At the same time, American Imperialism must be cajoled into assisting their ally with more money and aid. The burden of rearmament should be equitably shared.

On the surface hardly a programme to shake the Labour Party from top to bottom and promote the open defiance of approximately one-fifth of the Parliamentary Labour Party.

Bevan stimulates discussion

Thus the importance of the Bevan movement lies in the fact that it must give an impulse to critical thought and discussion. It gives an impetus to the hammering-out of a policy and programme for the movement rather than being a fully worked-out alternative itself. At this stage it marks a step in the right direction.

All thinking comrades who have the interest of the Labour movement at heart must rally to defend Bevan and the other comrades against the attack of the right wing, who have absolutely nothing to offer except social chaos and a faintly softened echo of Tory policy.

The Tories say to the right wing, “You cannot have rearmament and maintain the standards of living” and “How can you oppose our cuts, and demands for sacrifices on the part of the masses when you support the premise on which these cuts were based?” These arguments, given the policy of the Labour leadership, must have a certain effect on the middle class and even backward sections of the workers. To a certain extent it is true as the Manchester Guardian points out (March 5th) the Tribunites are involved in the same dilemma, “The Gallic spirits would have liked something much more fierce calling for cuts in rearmament, but that would by implication have condemned the good work done by the Labour Government in getting rearmament started. It would have been no credit to Labour, past or present. The late Government set the programme on its way and made the additions to it which a threatening situation demanded, bringing it to the £4,700 millions form. Mr. Bevan’s belated objection to the additions was not supported by the Party when in office, and a general shift of opinion now would say little for Labour’s strength of mind. Woolly wizardry is all very well in the columns of Tribune, but a weak basis for a responsible party. And what else but woolly can we call the demand ‘to build the forces needed to prevent the success of any further Soviet promoted adventures’ when it is combined with refusal to pay for or provide those forces?” (Our emphasis.) In short they too cannot have their cake and eat it.

It is because of this that Bevan and his followers attempt to justify their policies by arguing whether or not the figures of Russian divisions, as put forward by both the present and last Government, are correct. They attempt to decry the Russian potential in order to argue, while accepting the same premises, that the danger from Stalinist Russia is not so formidable(1). At the same time Bevan has been pushed by the latest developments, to argue correctly that Stalinism in China, despite its totalitarian garb, represents the social revolution which has taken place there. He castigated those forces in America who wish to wage war on the social revolution in Asia. However, the only reason why British imperialism does not act in full accord with those forces in America who wish to implement such a policy, is its own weakness and the realisation of the futility of such action.

But Bevan too expressed his support for the containment of “Communism” (Stalinism) by suggesting that the only way to achieve this was not military methods but improving the standards of the backward and downtrodden peoples of Asia and Africa. This to be achieved by a programme of economic aid, the finance of which was to be obtained by cutting the rearmament programme. His reasoning is unassailable! There is only one small flaw with this logic, Capitalism is not a mutual benefit society! The capitalists produce for profit and not to improve the standards of living. Before a real socialist programme of mutual aid which would benefit Asia, Africa, Britain and Europe could be planned and executed, a fundamental change in Britain’s social structure would be necessary.

The need for a Socialist policy

In this lies the hub of the question. The problem is really one of the necessity for a fundamental change in home and foreign policy which would largely eliminate the need for rearmament. Only a programme which would advocate the overthrow of capitalism, by nationalising under workers’ control all big industry (with little or no compensation for the ex-owners) could lay the basis economically, for a plan which would be based on the needs of the masses at home and abroad. Only a bold socialist programme could provide the necessary drive to achieve this, and that is what the active workers in the movement are looking for. They want a policy which will protect them from the grim alternatives of war or slump.

Every worker worth his salt will support this first important revolt in the Labour Party as the beginning of a necessary regroupment within the Labour Party. Bevan in spite of the weaknesses in his case reflects the desire for a real socialist programme on which the Labour Movement can fight to defeat the Tories. It can be a step on the road of the clarification of the left, which will find that only a programme of a worker’s socialist democracy is the answer to American Capitalism in the economic sphere and Stalinist totalitarianism in the political sphere.

For the moment the dispute has been patched up by the resolution of the executive which mildly rebukes the fifty-seven and demands the reintroduction of standing orders. But this will not be the end. The further worsening of the economic situation in Britain cannot but push the workers to demand more radical policies on the part of the Trade Unions and the Labour Party. The further deepening of the differences which have now begun to manifest themselves is inevitable.

Only a radical reorganisation of programme and policy will be adequate to cope with the needs of the time, and such a radical programme will be facilitated by the emergence of a powerful left wing. The Bevan revolt is the first step in this direction.

Notes in original:

(1) The addition of the industrial potential of Western Germany in Freeman’s article in “Going Our Way” to that of Britain, America and the Commonwealth is false because under present conditions, in the event of a war, it would be a matter of weeks before it was added to Russia’s potential.