Chris Harman


Tribune of the People II:
The Wasted Years

(Spring 1966)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.24, Spring 1966, pp.15-23.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The first part of this article appeared in IS 21, Summer 1965.

1. Honeymoon

With the disintegration of the Keep Left coalition in 1948-49 Tribune became no more than an addendum to the official Labour propaganda machine. Neither the content of its articles nor the affiliations of many of its writers indicated its origins in the traditional Left. Transport House paid for two pages of each issue to put across official party policy. These were rarely at odds with the rest of the paper. Critics of Tribune referred to a Transport House subsidy.’

Agreement between Tribune and its former enemies extended to virtually the whole range of policy. What reservations there were on support for US foreign policy ‘were largely in the background from 1947 to 1950.’ [1] As late as July 1950 Michael Foot was writing:

’American soldiers are fighting in Korea ... to uphold the principles of collective defence against wanton aggression ... a principle which the Labour Party since 1918 has considered essential for the preservation of world peace.’ [2]

Truman’s four point proposal was for Jennie Lee ‘a helping hand from ordinary American people, particularly from the organised industrial workers of America.’ [3] Keeping Left argued that the foreign policies of Keep Left had to be scrapped as ‘America has been moving towards the same ideals (as Britain) only more slowly.’ [4] An American political scientist has commented:

’With relatively little change in the American political situation from 1945-6 to 1948-50 the socialist accolade was ‘granted.’ [5]

In home affairs support was just as complete. The economic policy of Cripps was considered to be socialist:

’Steady and stolid progress is the picture that emerges from Stafford Cripps’ economic review last week.’

The Government-imposed wage freeze was supported:

’The TUC has done a magnificent job in offsetting inflation by continued and difficult restraint on wages.’

When the calm of the austerity years was disturbed by dockers’ attempts to defend living standards, Tribune referred to ‘tragic events’ and blamed bosses, union leaders and dock-workers equally. The former political rebels of the labour movement looked with disdain upon the attempts of trade unionists to resist the redistribution of income to their detriment and to the benefit of capital:

’Inhibitions on both sides of industry have too long held up intelligent reorganisation of methods and layout, and the application of time studies ...’

It was one thing to concur with the policies of those in power. It was another to participate in the exercise of that power and to determine the ends for which it was used. The Left was able to influence policies only insofar as its demands for reforms in the structure of industry and society coincided with the needs of the core of post-war capitalism. Beyond this, all the obeisance in the world before the Right wing could achieve nothing. When the limit was reached the Right wing of the Labour Party immediately raised the cry of ‘consolidation.’ The fervour of 1945 began to disappear from speeches. The defence of nationalisation began to sound apologetic. Disquiet on the Left was inevitable. The shock of near defeat in the 1950 election made this even more profound. But the first reaction of Tribune was to criticise not the content of policies, but their presentation. Woodrow Wyatt thought that nationalisation had not been defended sufficiently in the election campaign:

’The great tragedy of the campaign was that those managing it too blatantly set out to get the middle-class vote.’ [6]

It was still thought that ‘To a great extent the question of who is more “left” than “right” is meaningless.’ [7] The King’s speech was thought to be ‘encouraging.’ [8]

2. The Birth of Bevanism

The point of departure for the Left in the fifties was Bevan’s resignation from the Government in the spring of 1951. The apparent reason for this was opposition to the raising of arms expenditure to an unprecedented peace-time level at the same time that charges for health-service dental and optical treatment were introduced. But it is difficult to accept this policy dispute as the sole cause of the resignation. Bevan himself not only accepted the basic presupposition of the Budget – the need to protect ‘British commitments’ – but had also lambasted Left critics who had attacked the arms programme in Parliament two months before and as Minister of Health he had been quite willing to steer the measure that made the health charges possible through Parliament, even though he had opposed it in the Cabinet. If he tried to appear consistent by arguing that the strain on the economy had only recently become apparent, this was not to convince everyone.

The arguments elaborated in the resignation controversy were to form the basis for the ideology and composition of the ‘Left’ of the early fifties. What was peculiar about these was that they combined a perceptive, and undoubtedly correct critique of the arms programme from the point of view of British capital, with a socialist critique of foreign policy and its domestic consequences. The basic argument was that realisation of the arms programme would produce such a strain on resources as to raise raw material prices and produce ‘mass-unemployment.’

’The fact is the West has embarked upon a campaign of arms production upon such a scale, so quickly, and of such an extent, that the foundations of political liberty and parliamentary democracy will not be able to sustain the shock.’ [9]

Besides which ‘Today the policies of the west are based upon a gross overestimate of Soviet strength.’ [10] The real strength of the Soviet Union lay in its ability to utilise the revolutionary forces of the world. So ‘it is the task of British socialism to persuade our western allies to assist (the colonial revolution)’ instead of forcing it into the grip of the Russians.

This argument combined beliefs in the progressive nature of the Truman administration (’we must ... assist the Truman administration in its battle against McCarthyism’) and of the Cold War as a struggle between freedom and totalitarianism, with the traditional liberal pacifist view that solutions to conflicts could and must be found by ‘statesmen not soldiers.’ Also combined were a perceptive insight into the extent to which Western imperialism was in danger of clinging too long to obsolescent forms of exploitation in the colonies when newer forms based upon aid and trade, not military government, were more apposite, and the traditional socialist opposition to colonialism. All this and more. For Tribune also defended the Welfare State, calling for rearmament to be financed ‘not by inflation, but by a system of socialist controls.’

This admixture of socialist and neo-capitalist demands was the logical continuation of the politics of 1945. It also explains the strange coalition of those, who, even if they were unaware of it, were in the vanguard of the bourgeoisie with the remnant of socialist idealism in the Labour Party. On the one hand stood Harold Wilson, in whom one could already see the embryo of the ‘new dynamism’ of the sixties. On the other stood the remnants of pre-1945 radicalism, led by Bevan, and still occasionally speaking with the tones of the thirties.

Such an alliance could not last. When British capitalism was forced to reassess its arms programme drastically, the basis of the Bevanite coalition was gone. Such figures as Wilson and Crossman were to be hostile to the Left through most of the late fifties. But in the immediate aftermath of the resignation controversy the hostility between ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ was real enough, despite a brief subsequent lull during the election of 1951, when, ‘For the sake of presenting a united front, Bevan and Morrison spoke words bordering on brotherly love ...’ [11]

Immediately after the election Right-wing trade-union leaders led by Deakin decided to try and get Bevan expelled from the Party, and constituency representation on the NEC abolished. Simultaneously, ‘Outside Parliament every effort was made to boost the circulation of Tribune, at that time almost moribund.’ [12]

A central feature in this was the Tribune Brains Trust.

’Novel in form, manned frequently by well-known radio personalities, these ... were the biggest, most continuous and widespread propaganda effort ever conducted within the Labour Movement.’ [13]

Tribune itself soon ceased to be a fortnightly poor man’s New Statesman, made up in the main of book reviews, and began appearing as a weekly, journalistically exciting, tabloid.

Yet real policy differences between ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ in this period were never great. For instance Tribune still favoured maintenance of British imperial interests, although it opposed the use of force in their defence. If British intervention in Persia was considered dangerous,

’For Britain to bow to the loss of the Anglo-Iranian’s property would be an unmitigated disaster.’ [14]

At home it was a continuation of the 1945-51 policies that was demanded:

’There are two factors,’ wrote Mikardo, ‘seriously inhibiting the proper functioning of a planned economy in Britain: one is the government’s tenderness about applying physical controls to private industry, and the other is the anarchy of the wages sector.’ [15]

Industrially the best traditions of Personnel Management theory were still adhered to. ‘Entirely unjustified distrust of T&GWU officials among the men (dockers)’ was the fault of ‘a failure of communication.’ Deakin’s support for wage freeze ‘was in his members’ interests, but he failed to inform them properly.’

It was not surprising that many contemporary observers expressed doubt as to the genuineness of the policy differences within the Party:

’There are not really two clear-cut rival policies, each commanding a resolute following. The main body of Labour Party workers ... is ... very uncertain what the right policies are and for what policies the combatants really stand.’ [16]

Nevertheless, the Bevanite revolt received a warm response from the CLPs. Party activists, although unclear as to what had happened between 1945 and 1951, were shocked by the turning of an impregnable majority into a Tory victory. They were even more shocked when the new Labour opposition failed to oppose. When Tribune demanded, ‘End the sham fighting,’ [17] they concurred. They gave expression to this feeling by knocking first Shinwell and then Morrison and Dalton off the Constituency Section of the National Executive and replacing them by ‘Bevanites.’

The more Tribune expressed the mood of the rank and file, the more it aroused the hostility of union leaders. As each side rationalised its opposition to the other and argued for support, ideological issues crystallised.

3. Morecambe

As opposition in the constituencies to the Right wing grew, Tribune reflected it. The week before the 1952 Conference at Morecambe Tribune carried an article by Bevan which expressed the belief that

’The polarisation of British political life is not therefore as between Labour and Tory. The formal struggle will be expressed in those terms. But the real struggle is for the soul of the Labour Party.’

But when the front page of the same issue, arguing for the need for independence from the US, asserted that

’Our country is in greater danger that at almost any time since 1940 ... The danger is of creeping decay and a mortal surrender of British independence’ [18]

One could have been excused for asking whether by the soul of the party was meant socialist principle or open chauvinism.

The Morecambe Conference revealed both the ambiguity of the Left’s position – both Left and Right acclaimed the policy resolutions passed – and its strength. 1,728,000 votes were recorded for strike action to turn out the Tory Government. Gaitskell, with the political tact for which he later became famous, claimed that ‘one sixth of the delegates appear to be Communist or Communist-inspired.’ [19]

But Morecambe was not to be the beginning of a great revival of the Left. In Tribune the meagre policy differences separating it from the orthodox Right were allowed to decline. At the 1953 Conference of the Party an executive document Challenge to Britain was passed without amendment:

’As so often before ... the Executive programme, meagre though it was, served to neutralise the pressure from the Left.’ [20]

Michael Foot, however, remained confident that ‘Morecambe did not mark a retreat.’ [21]

Tension and hostility between ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ remained. But as often as not this was not over the content of policy, but over the failure of an ageing leadership to push the policy. Such an approach had the advantage of blurring the extreme differences existing within the Bevanite grouping and within Tribune itself. Providing these were not raised, young careerists and the old Left could work together with ease. Unity was possible on this basis, but no other, between Wilson, already drawing up blueprints for the New Britain, Bevan, grasping at ever-elusive levers of power for himself and, as he saw it, for his class, the Left radicals like Foot, and the rearguard of Stalinism, defending the last position captured in the thirties and fortified in 1945.

4. German Rearmament

The Bevanites could not forever evade having to pose questions of policy. But their own heterogeneity meant that this could only be done in a vague and incoherent way. The price of ‘unity on the Left’ was carefully veiled confusion. The reaction to the problem of German rearmament in 1954 revealed this more than anything else.

Prior to this becoming a central political issue Tribune’s position had remained that held during the war. Then, it had emphasised time and again that the struggle was against Naziism and not against the German people, who had, after all, been the first to suffer at the hands of the Nazis. All shades of ‘Vansittatism’, whether of the racist Right-wing variety, or of the even more despicable ‘Left’ variety emanating from King Street, had been condemned out of hand. As late as 1952 Jennie Lee had been able to blame the German problem on the restoration of the class-structure of Western Germany by the Allies.

But now the German problem had become an issue which could hardly fail to influence the struggle for power within the PLP. Tribune saw its role as that of gaining for the Bevanite coalition the maximum number of allies. The old arguments began to merge with a whole variety of new ones, many of which contained tinges at least of the previously rejected racist view. References began to appear that could only suggest that Germans were innately aggressive. They were blamed for overrunning France ‘three times in sixty years.’ [22] At the same time concern was expressed that the US would not be able to control the German general staff, and that it might change sides in the Cold War.

Tribune could, in fact, hardly avoid having to use arguments that were racist in implication. For it was demanding that the German ruling class be refused arms while at the same time acknowledging the right of the British ruling class to have them. This argument could only make sense if the German rulers were intrinsically more dangerous to peace that those of Britain, France or America. In the next ten years, when Port Said was to be bombed, Algeria terrorised and Cuba abortively invaded, this was shown obviously not to be the case. Such arguments as were used against German rearmament would at best fail to seek the roots of international tension in the forces that drive capitalist states to war; at worst, they would become an apology for the hegemony of established powers. Ten years later the same arguments are still being used at a time when that hegemony is much more in question. The attempts to maintain it through ‘non-proliferation pacts’ and the like find the ‘Left’ on the side of powers who over the past twenty years have alternately plundered, policed, terrorised and directed the rest of the world.

The widening of alliances that the struggle over German rearmament produced was to do little to widen support for Bevanism. Although 1954 saw the executive win only a very narrow majority on German rearmament at Conference, it also saw the disintegration of parliamentary Bevanism. After an open disagreement with Attlee over the foundation of SEATO, Bevan was forced to resign from the shadow cabinet, and Wilson, with an eye to the future, took his place. [23]

Whatever Sevan’s own motives had been he was now forced into the position of having to fight the leadership – and to do so without many of his former allies. He put down a resolution demanding parliamentary support before manufacture of the British H-bomb began and was supported by 65 MPs. In June he announced that he would give up his seat on the NEC as a representative of the CLPs to fight Gaitskell for the Treasurer-ship of the Party.

5. A turn to the rank and file

If he was to fight in this manner, the automatic support of the CLPs was no longer sufficient. Deakin, when he had attempted to destroy Bevanism, had had to attempt – although unsuccessfully – to pack the CLPs with ‘loyal’ union members; Bevan now had to try and permeate the unions with his own brand of ‘Leftism’ if he were ever to hope to beat Gaitskell. The election of Gaitskell at the 1954 Conference with.twice as many votes as Bevan made it clear that that it was not sufficient to rely upon entrenched trade-union, bureaucrats for support. At the Tribune meeting after the Conference Bevan announced that he intended to campaign among the rank and file to ‘break the hold of the present union leaders.’ [24]

Tribune could not aid Bevan in this struggle by confining itself to purely political issues. It had to tackle the union leaders on their own ground. It had to take the fight into industry.

The major enemy at this time was Deakin. He above all epitomised the block vote that stood between Bevan and power in the party. It was to be in Deakin’s union, the T&GWU, that Tribune for the first – and probably the last – time was to be involved in struggle with the rank and file against the bureaucracy. When the dockers flocked behind Trotskyist-influenced leaders from the T&GWU into the NASD [25] in the northern ports, Tribune supported them. Deakin’s logic was ridiculed when he called a strike against compulsory overtime a ‘CP plot’ when in fact King Street was clearly siding with Deakin and the employers against the strike. An encounter with the NEC followed in which it was implied that members of the Labour Party had no right to expose the dictatorial incompetence of the union leadership. Tribune stuck to its line and emerged unscathed.

’It seems that the only supporters of the Stevedores’ Union are the dockers,’ wrote Foot. [26] But the motives behind Tribune’s support for rank-and-file rights were not unmixed. Desire to strengthen Bevan in the struggle for parliamentary leadership was as great as concern for dockers’ conditions. That this struggle was still basically conceived as one of bureaucratic manoeuvring is shown by the degree to which such an undeserving individual as Dick Barrett was built up in the pages of the paper. It must have been a considerable embarrassment to Tribune when in May and June 1955 leading NASD officials were to blackleg with impunity during an ‘official’ strike, and Barrett himself was conveniently sick. [27]

But even now, despite the vehemence of tone on both sides, and the vigour of a struggle for leadership into which parts of the Labour Movement normally beyond the legitimate confines of such a struggle had been dragged, divisions over policy were not that basic. When the PLP abstained on the decisive vote on German rearmament, the leading ‘Leftists’ around Bevan did not join the six MPs who broke discipline. Bevan could still serve as co-leader of an important delegation of party members to China.

This appearance of consensus did not result from tactical caution alone. Had it done so the abrupt clash with the leadership only months later when Bevan was temporarily expelled from the PLP would have been inexplicable. Underlying the periodic tactic of overt opposition to the leadership was a fundamental consensus. This did not concern this or that particular item of policy as much as the basic question as to who .should take decisions, entrenched bureaucrats or the rank and file. Although in particular unions Tribune might support the rank and file, or at least those bureaucrats it thought best for the rank and file, when it came, to major decisions, action was recognised as the prerogative of existing ‘leaders.’ Thus Tribune would demand disarmament. But this was not to be disarmament of the ruling class by an active, self-conscious working class, but disarmament through negotiations by representatives of the ruling classes themselves. That such disarmament was, given the dynamics of the systems over which the ruling classes presided, impossible, and that the repeated failures of conferences were no accident, never occurred to Tribune. Nor did it occur to Tribune that the most that could result from great power discussions would be a detente which would institutionalise the dominance of existing powers without solving either the problem of war or that of poverty and misery. Even more to the point was the fact that while this way of attempting to deal with problems gave great opportunities for leading politicians to impress their followers with rhetoric, it gave no role to these followers themselves. If the future of mankind was being decided over cocktails in Geneva, what was the point in occupying Trafalgar Square?

Such a consensus over the basic question marked polemics on questions of foreign affairs in particular with an aura of unreality. The Left would demand summit talks and the Right would refuse them. Or Labour would demand them and the Tories refuse them. Eventually someone would concede them, they would break down and the cycle would have to begin again. Inevitably the mode of argument became one of awarding points to different national leaders. If the US administration proposed a ‘peace plan’ Tribune would disregard the motives behind it, praise it and condemn the Russians for not discussing it. At another time the roles would be reversed. In either case the fact that the motives behind ‘initiative’ or rebuttal of initiative were basically the same would be ignored. When, for instance, Tito and Khruschev came to a diplomatic agreement part of the price of which seems to have been the imprisonment of Djilas, Tribune praised them. [28] While Khruschev – whose record of brutality and oppression in the Ukraine should need no reiterating – was beginning his period of ascendancy, the Rev Donald (now Lord) Soper could write: ‘Some of the Russians may be good and faithful men.’ [29] ‘Nehru the Peacemaker’ [30] became one of Bevan’s favourite cries.

Praise for rulers whose interests led them to want negotiations was paralleled by condemnation when the negotiations failed. ‘Russia must take her fair share of the blame,’ Bevan could write when the four-power talks he had been demanding for a year achieved nothing. The alternative to praising the ruling class was to prick pins in the puppet. Utopian hope would be replaced by moralising. Demonology continued to be a substitute for analysis. The argument merely moved from one elitist position to another: from belief in the abilities of rulers to act, to moral condemnation of them for not acting, to explaining to the rulers their failure to understand their own best interests.

Even in the period 1955-6 when for the first time for twenty years the shop steward appeared in the pages of Tribune, and when the divisions within the Labour leadership led to Bevan’s exclusion from the parliamentary party, this elitism remained basic, and with it remained adhesion to the presumptions of social democracy. The real enemy remained the Tories, and their real crime as often as not was mere ineptitude ‘Anti-communist military pacts’ were wrong because ‘they weakened the position of the Western world.’ Nation remained more important than class. Tribune’s policies were no more coherent at this time than at any other. On the docks its allies were the rank and file. In the United Nations it supported Tito and Nehru. In four-power talks it saw Eden as an ally, even if a misguided one. The texture of the Tribunism in the fifties is above all demonstrated by the events of late 1956, when British imperialism and Russian imperialism were to face crises simultaneously.

6. Suez

The Suez crisis had the unusual effect of producing agitation in opposition to it not only from those who were in principle anti-imperialist, but also from those who favoured US policies and those who were far-sighted enough to understand the long-term interests of British capital. In the process of development of the crisis these were by no means in the same camp all the time. And Tribune certainly was not in the anti-imperialist camp all the time. As the situation evolved it tended to jump from one position to another.

Tribune began by condemning Gaitskell’s suggestion that economic sanctions be applied after Egypt had nationalised the Suez Canal, but it was by no means unanimously in favour of the right of Egypt to control what its people had constructed. For Bevan Egypt was right ‘in a narrow and legalistic sense’ only. Her action was condemned as ‘treating the canal like a medieval caravan route.’ He called for the ‘internationalisation’ of the canal – presumably under the US-dominated UN or the Anglo-US-dominated ‘Canal Users’ Committee.’ Because he would not accept this, Nasser was condemned more than the British owners he had thrown out:

’Egypt has a right to come into her own, but not into someone else’s.’ [31]

Tribune itself dissented from this position a week later – although it demanded that the UN guarantee freedom of passage through the canal. Bevan himself was by this time defending the right of the Egyptians to nationalise, while attacking their determination to exercise this right:

’It must not be all take, Colonel Nasser.’

This ambiguity could not however stand the test of events. When it was a question of abstract right Egypt could be condemned, but the whole tradition of the British Left ruled out support for armed intervention. ‘Don’t risk one British life,’ wrote Bevan, although this was followed by ‘Egypt as much as anyone else owes it to the world to show moderation.’ [32] The nationalism of a country fighting foreign oppression was still abstractly equated with that of the oppressor.

When intervention came, criticism of it was as much because it endangered the UN as for the imperialist motives behind it. And when the US, clearly from motives of her own, condemned the aggression, Bevan could write ‘the US emerges with an enhanced reputation.’ [33] Unfortunately Bevan could not believe in this ‘enhanced reputation’ for long. Within a fortnight he was criticising the US for trying to replace British influence in the Middle-East.

7. Eastern Europe

When in the spring of 1956 Krushchev shocked the world, both ‘communist’ and ‘non-communist, with his 20th Congress CPSU speech, he presented to Tribune an unparalleled opportunity to combine elitism and liberalism. Tribune embraced Khrushchevism with the same sort of enthusiasm with which it had once greeted Stalinism. According to Foot the Soviet leaders were telling the Russian people ‘Think for Yourself’. [34]

But criticism never expressed more than a liberal moral standpoint. The rights of individuals in Russia would be supported. But the Russian leadership themselves were expected to defend these. The attempts of the Russian ruling class to adjust its rule to a changing industrial base were described as ‘the first steps in the most difficult and honourable of operations – the dismantling of a dictatorship.’ The most prominent criticism of Soviet leaders in this period was for making ‘utterances (in India) that gave offence to almost all shades of political opinion in Britain.’ [35]

In the summer of 1956 the workers of Poznan in Poland took the injunction to think for themselves seriously and rose against the state capitalist bureaucracy. Although Tribune could claim to understand their difficulties and frustrations, it could see only one remedy: for the bureaucracy to liberalise its own rule. For this reason regret was expressed at the rising.

’It comes at a time when there is a real prospect of an improvement throughout the Socialist world.’

Workers could suffer; but for Tribune only rulers could act. Poznan was only the prelude to the revolution that broke out in Hungary a few months later. Tribune had drawn reformist conclusions from the revolutionary potential of Poznan; when this developed into the revolutionary activity of Hungarian workers and students, its conclusions were blatantly counter-revolutionary. Of course, it did not support counter-revolution under the old leaders, but it was quite prepared to see it under new ones:

’The new authorities in Budapest must make strenuous efforts to reestablish order.’

The national communist leaders, it argued, by preventing ‘unrestrained violence’ (i.e. social revolution)

’offered their countrymen a policy whereby they can begin to regain their national independence by themselves and without jeopardising either the peace of Europe or Soviet security’ [36] (no doubt the security of the ‘security police’).

That national independence on these terms would involve continued rule by a more or less totalitarian party did not worry Tribune. That the deepening and spreading of the revolution might lead not to the alleviation of exploitation, but to the abolition of it and of the national conflict produced by it throughout Central Europe and beyond, was inconceivable to Tribune. Its only solution to the problems of Central and Eastern Europe remained that of a meeting together of representatives of different ruling classes. Such meetings were endangered by social upheaval and this had to be prevented. The trouble was that in 1956 the spectre of revolution was much more real than the dream of a successful summit conference.

But Tribune had its dream, and had to adhere to it even when it became a nightmare. It asked for ‘sympathy with the Russian leaders as they grapple with the problems involved in slackening the reins ...’ [37] As the copies of Tribune containing these words appeared on the streets the Russian tanks began to move into Hungary.

When the shelling of Budapest began, Tribune put itself ‘passionately on their (the Hungarians’) side.’ [38] But it still saw the solution of their difficulties not in an intensification and spreading of the revolution, but in a ‘relaxation of Russian fears of Western hostility.’ It continued to support Gomulka and the Polish national state capitalist bureaucracy against the ‘hotheads’ who wanted a Polish Hungary: ‘Gomulka must prevent provocations against the Russians.’

In both Poland and Hungary the revolutionary tide subsided – in the first case more or less peacefully, in the second beaten back by Russian tanks. But in the long run the ‘hot-heads’ in Budapest, even in reformist terms, gained more than the ‘moderates’ in Warsaw who compromised both with national and with Russian Stalinism. This was to be expected. The outcome of the situation in both Poland and Hungary depended on class forces. In Hungary the working class, once having begun to move along the path of self-liberation, was, even in defeat, stronger than the Polish working class that had been stopped short of battle by, among other things, the Polish equivalents of the ‘Tribunites.’

The cases of Hungary and Suez were both ‘crises’ of sorts – although one threatened a whole social structure while the other expressed only the process of readjustment of a structure to new conditions of exploitation. As such they were bound to emphasise what were normally only potentialities in Tribunite thought. But these expressed themselves, although less clearly, in the paper’s treatment of virtually all issues right through the fifties. Here, to avoid repetition, and because this period has already been subjected to some good Marxist analyses, it is only proposed to deal with three issues: the retreat of the Labour bureaucracy from any sort of verbal commitment to socialism, the rise of CND, and the issue of the Common Market.

8. Public Ownership

A further stage in the retreat of official Labour policy on public ownership was marked in 1957 by the publication of the policy document, Industry and Society. This was notable for its vagueness on specific commitments and for its refusal to question the distribution of power in industry. The immediate response of Tribune itself was one of strong criticism. But some of those normally close to it took a rather different line. Bevan, recently elected treasurer of the Party by a narrow margin and subsequently received back into the parliamentary leadership, interpreted it as a ‘Left’ document. Mikardo wrote ‘I think that this document is a good one’ [39] although he qualified this by adding that the wrong interpretation might be put on it by Gaitskell, Wilson and Crossman.

Given such initial confusion the Left was bound to react in a purely negative fashion to the NEC’s dilution of policy. It merely asked that conditions be attached to the document at some points making it less ambiguous. Conference failed to attach these conditions.

9. Goodbye to Bevan

But, for the development of the Left, the crucial event of the 1957 party conference was the fact that the man around whom the ‘Left’ had been organising for the previous six years and in whom so many of its hopes were placed – Bevan – finally made his peace with the leadership. Appointed by the NEC to reply to a resolution calling for unilateral nuclear disarmament, Bevan, by now shadow foreign minister, turned on to his own former supporters the rhetoric that had once been used with such effect against the Right.

Bevan’s performance threw the Tribunites into utter confusion. A break between them and Bevan seemed inevitable. But this was not to take place either suddenly or completely. If Foot ‘remained entirely unconvinced by Sevan’s arguments’ he persuaded himself that other policies adopted (presumably Industry and Society) marked ‘a substantial shift ... away from the rigid positions of the Right wing of some years ago ...’ [40] Bevan continued to write for Tribune, and Tribunites continued to express the hope that Bevan would find his alliance with Gaitskell intolerable. [41]

Despite the shock of many of the ‘Left’ Bevan’s actions were only a natural culmination of Bevanism. This had rarely aimed at more than a replacement of one set of parliamentary leaders by another. Its criticisms were often not so much about the content of policy as about the inability of the existing leaders to push it dynamically. At the same time the mixture of utopian-ism and illusion that replaced analysis when the Left tried to understand and affect events prevented it from seeing what was happening to its own leaders. Bevan could swing from Left to Right unrestrained by the need for consistent theory. The difference between the sogginess of Tribunite thought and the stodginess of the empty official rhetoric has never been that great.

After the sacrifice of so much activity to one man’s career it hardly seemed possible for the Left to continue the merely ritualistic candidate-pushing that had constituted politics for it in the early fifties. At the same time Suez – with thousands involved in demonstrations for the first time for years – and Hungary – where workers had actually made a bid for power – were to give a new impetus to Left thought and imagination. A rebirth of a creative Left seemed possible out of the destruction of the old attitudes embodied in Bevanism and Stalinism.

The new fervour was channelled above all into CND. [42] Here enthusiasm seemed to prevent stultification and to challenge the old elitist attitudes. Yet these hopes were not to be realised. If the rise of CND seemed to herald new attitudes and new possibilities, this was to be followed by a long drawn out decline which was part cause and part consequence of a return, at least partially, to the old attitudes. An organisation which had started off fighting the bureaucracy in the Labour Party was rapidly to become dominated by a bureaucracy of its own. The decline of CND was not the fault of the old Tribunites and others who became involved in it alone. Degeneration and fragmentation would seem to be the inevitable fate of any movement which aims at generalised goals at a time when the struggles most workers are engaged in are localised in extent even if not in ultimate implications. Divisions arise between groups demanding apparently opposed but equally unrealistic short-term answers; on the one hand those who replace the task of changing reality by that of trying to purify their own souls, often combining this with a quasi-magical belief in the power of personil witness to move power blocks; on the other hand those who hope to change reality by identifying themselves and their aspirations with the completely different intentions of those already holding power. But such a development only occurs in so far as individuals accept the false logic implied. Tribune could supply to CND many who already could see no other logic than that implying the whispering-in-the-ears-of-the-great approach.

Tribune welcomed CND, and many of the old Left played a prominent role in its leading ranks. But in no sense did they carry the movement. Rather, they themselves were carried along by a wave of enthusiasm from below. This, although often mouthing the old slogans of the traditional Left, tended to demand immediate action outside of the manoeuverings of trad-ional Left politics. For the old ‘Left’ the task was to channel this fervour into traditional politics, emasculate it, and benefit from it. For the old Left the demand for unilateralism would be less important than the need to appeal to diplomatically minded politicians. After CND’s extremely successful inaugural meeting Tribune wrote, ‘Magnificent, inspiring, historical’. Yet in the same period it was to praise first Gaitskell [43], then Khruschev [44], and even Macmillan, for demanding summit conferences.

Sharing so much common ground with the Right wing at the theoretical level, Tribune was more or less incapable of seriously confronting it when a fight took place within the party. It could only ride on waves produced by more or less spontaneous action from below. Individuals could of course be left behind in the corridors of power when the wave had subsided.

In the early months of 1960 the bureaucracy in the Labour Party found itself confronting a threat to its ability to dominate the party on the one issue of the bomb. Union conference after union conference came out in support of the Left on this issue – even at one point the virtually dictatorial NUGMW. The extremely small numbers of individuals actively involved in the making of union decisions made possible the defeat at the Scarborough Conference of the executive (the CLPs are estimated to have voted 60-40 for the Right). But such a narrowly based victory could easily be overturned by the established leaders of the bureaucracy, even if some effort was required. There was probably nothing the Left could have done to prevent such an outcome. But it could have made the effort to fortify its own real strength in the experience of the struggle. It could have organised and campaigned to lay the basis for future victories. Tribune, however, rather than face the difficulties of defending an extreme Left position with what few extreme Left forces were available, itself joined with its bureaucratic friends in the movement to the Right that followed Scarborough; Foot, for instance, argued that the Crossman-Padley plan was progressive. [45] While the full machinery of Transport House was being utilised to overturn what should ‘constitutionally’ have been official party policy, direct action demonstrations were criticised for ‘undermining people’s beliefs in the effectiveness of constitutional action.’

10. The Common Market

One major value has always been held in common by both Left and Right: devotion to the idea of ‘Britain.’ Even in the heyday of CND ‘Let Britain Lead’ had seemed an appropriate slogan. For the Left, ‘Britain’ was more than a body of private interests. It was the embodiment of moral purpose. Appropriately, when the Left took its opposition to the status quo seriously it found in Britain a vehicle (at times it seemed the only vehicle) through which transcendence could take place. It was Britain that had to lead a ‘third force,’ reconcile the US and Russia, act as an ‘honest broker’ (how 300 years of imperialism makes one honest was never asked). Britain was seen as deserving, or having a duty to play, a special role, even with the Tories in power. With Labour in power a great extension of this ‘moral power’ was imagined.

Nothing then was more natural than that Left and Right should achieve unity if the Conservatives threatened to extinguish the name of Britain. When they applied to join the Common Market, the most important need for Tribune became opposition to it. So important was the ‘nation’ to it that it was willing to unite with anyone (including outright reactionaries like Hinchingbrooke) to defend it. Chauvinism had always been a distinctive feature of Tribunism. Often this had meant little more than a willingness to accept the myths of official society. Now it meant leading the applause when Gaitskell spoke of Gallipoli and Dunkirk. They themselves wrote that government policies should assume that ‘Britain’s main interest should be British interests.’ Against such a background expressions of internationalist sentiment had to take pious forms – for instance ‘Labour’s slogan must be “Save the United Nations”.’

This chauvinism could be justified because a whole demon-ology developed during the previous decade was at hand. If Khrushchev, Truman, Macmillan, Gaitskell, Attlee and Mendes-France had at various times appeared as angels, Adenauer and de Gaulle had usually been the most prominent of the devils. To make this somewhat arbitrary awarding of black and white marks appear rational all sorts of arguments were employed. One of the commonest was to ascribe to the German Government as a whole the residual aspirations of its most extreme members (themselves clearly out of touch with needs of modern German capitalism): ‘Bonn’s aim is to recreate the Germany of 1937.’ [46] In the Berlin crisis of 1961 misinterpretation of facts even led to a tendency among certain writers to sympathise with the most oppressive regime in Europe – that of Ulbricht in Eastern Germany:

’Whether you like it or not, the closing of the sector boundary to Grenzeganger is warmly welcomed by the great majority of East Berliners,’ [47]

wrote Ian Mikardo at the time of construction of the Berlin wall.

Acceptance that the line-up in the Labour Party should be principally determined by the Common Market issue was bound to lead to a devaluation of the question of unilateralism. When the Right retrieved control of the Party Conference on this issue in 1961 Tribune was not unduly worried:

’The Left has no reason to be depressed ... It shows signs of having educated its opponents ...’ [48]

11. Wilson’s advent

By the end of 1962 Tribune was in a position to forget its former battles and line up behind the chauvinistic calls for a ‘New Britain.’ GaitskelPs death and replacement by Wilson removed the last obstacle. The new leader was seen as a ‘man of the Left’ – although, apart from an opportunistic opposition to Gaitskell’s tactics after Scarborough, he had not been seen near the Left for eight years.

Disillusion and disappointment, the weariness of eleven years of opposition, the smell of the spoils of office, all contributed to the surrender. But above all it was the illusions that had always sustained Tribune which were to blame. In terms of practical activity they had always shied away from the only alternative to moving to the Right: the acceptance of a revolutionary perspective and the willingness to give up immediate parliamentary pretensions in order to fight for this perspective among the rank and file. Instead they accepted the illusion of Labourism that the mere insertion of working-class leaders into the bourgeois political process and not the pressure of working-class activity produces reforms. The detachment of Labour politics from the day-to-day struggles of the working class which has typified British Labourism from its inception was as welcome to them as to the Right wing. Labourism had always been willing, of course, to benefit from die organisation and consciousness which working-class activity produces, but its concern was always, simultaneously, to restrict this, to make it ‘respectable.’

In the fifties the fragmentation in working-class struggle and consciousness produced by the expansion of capitalism meant that the struggle itself would not raise Labour leaders any higher in the bourgeois political hierarchy. For the Right this mattered little, as they had already become an integral part of the established political process and received all the spoils entailed. For the Left it meant attempting to maintain a position in bourgeois institutions that no generalised struggle backed up. It had been the parliamentary beneficiary of the increased working-class consciousness of the war years in particular. Now that this had subsided (or, rather, taken different forms) it could maintain its position only by emphasising its detachment from class politics.

No longer borne forward in any sense by pressures from outside official politics, it could maintain itself only on the terms of the latter. This it could only do by talking its language and thinking in its terms. Its terms and its language were suited to the purpose of adjusting the status quo to the interests of those who benefitted from the status quo, and to no other. In this situation the remedies of the parliamentary ‘Left’ for the world’s ills could hardly differ from those of the Right. They shared a belief in the ability of ruling classes and ruling-class institutions – the UN, summit conferences, neutral leaders – to overcome the tensions arising out of capitalist competition East and West. They shared a belief in the primacy of the ‘national interest.’ They only stopped short when the Right’s policies were carried to their logical conclusions.

Isolated from the numerous but fragmented struggles that alone could constitute a basis for any class-based politics in the fifties, Tribune and the Left could never appreciate the texture of the period they were in. On the one hand they always tended to be over-optimistic about Labour policies – only to be disillusioned later. The possibility of short-term parliamentary alliances always led them to overestimate their own strength. On the other hand they made a similar but opposite misappraisal of Tory policies. Every attack upon the working class would be exaggerated in its scope. Prophecies of considerable unemployment, major struggles, legislation against trade unions, were a recurrent feature of Tribune throughout the fifties: ‘If the Tories win on 8th October – expect attacks on trade unions.’ This misappraisal of the situation was conjoined with an underestimation of the real strength of working-class organisation (a strength which did in fact prevent the Tories from staging a major struggle against it). Given this double misconception of reality, Tribunism could never range outside of the spectrum between an instinctive defence of past loyalties and beliefs and a continued misinterpretation of these into apologies for neo-capitalistic measures.

This being the case, their capitulation before Harold Wilson was quite natural. In him they found someone whose policies had the ‘realism’ of the Right, yet who was capable of covering them with the rhetoric of the Left, who was not frightened to call in a US-dominated UN if necessary, who would support an India dependent upon Western aid, who could chase working-class votes with demagogic promises, who would praise Clause Four while postponing indefinitely the day of reckoning. With him they could praise state capitalist planning as the socialist measure they had demanded for years. They could shudder with him when an upstart racialist from the Midlands threatened their parliamentary seats, and surrender with him what remained of their internationalist tradition. With such a leader the pen as sword could become the pen as sycophant.

Yet it was not only in the Strand office that the Left fell for the seductive pose of Wilsonism. The Left of the early fifties had given way to its temptations long before. The average rank-and-file Bevanite of 1951 had probably by 1965 ended up either disillusioned and out of political activity or disillusioned and a councillor. The latter would suffer corrupting forces as great as those confronting his parliamentary equivalent, if not greater. For in the major cities Labour had not faced the exigencies of running capitalism for just six years out of thirty, but had done so for decades. Those who held municipal power knew the difficulties of explaining the requirements of finance to irate ratepayers, knew the impossibility of proceeding too fast, knew the necessity of deception, and above all the need to keep the working class – for its own sake – out of participation in politics for more than one day every three years. They also understood the necessity for keeping the young CNDer or the old Trotskyist out of the party.

Even those not themselves corrupted by the pressures of these years, pressures which the use of phony arguments and the practice of self-deception did not help to resist, could only with difficulty avoid the temptation of looking for a solution where none existed. The somewhat harder Left around the Voice newspapers tended to share with Tribune the general bemusement in the first days of the Labour Government. Even the self-consciously ‘hegemonic’ mandarins of New Left Review saw the advent of Harold Wilson not as a passing adjustment of British capitalism to a changing situation, but as an event of tremendous moment for its whole development. [49]

But Tribunism was not in its own terms a failure. If its aim was to capture citadels within the capitalist state machinery, it succeeded. By 1965 ex-Tribunites controlled Parish Councils and they controlled the government. If in the process the needs of the capitalist state came to dominate Tribune’s politics, it had only itself to blame. The building of a mass Left in the fifties was impossible, given the continued ability of capitalism to expand. But the building of a larger and more influential hard Left that could have resisted the ravages of Wilsonism was not. Tribune, seeking respectability and parliamentary ‘power,’ above all resisted attempts to do this. The one attempt made in the fifties to organise outside of Parliament in seriousness on generalised policies, Victory For Socialism, collapsed under the weight of the Parliamentary elitists that dominated it.

If after only a few months of seeing so much of its past activity crystallised as acceptance of racialism, support for aggression in Vietnam and a complete reconciliation with capital, Tribune shies away, its whole approach makes it inevitable that it should go through the whole process again. For Tribune remains as committed to its own form of ineffectual elitism as ever. Young progressives replace old ones as these move on into the Cabinet. The best way of building the Left is still seen as lying in short-term alliances with frustrated Right-wing careerists. Wilson is cast out of the pantheon, to join Truman and Stalin on the black list, but new figures are to be built up. The search for the charismatic leader who will automatically solve its and the working class’s problems continues.

When the working class itself begins to solve its own problems, Tribune will no doubt, as in 1956, be looking the other way.


1. L.D. Epstein, British Labor and US Foreign Policy, American Political Science Review, Vol 45.

2. Michael Foot, Tribune, 28 July 1950.

3. House of Commons Debates (Hansard), Vol 460, Cols 1193-7.

4. Keeping Left, London, 1950.

5. L.D. Epstein, op. cit.

6. Woodrow Wyatt, Tribune, 3 February 1950.

7. Editorial, Tribune, 3 March 1950.

8. Editorial, Tribune, 10 March 1950.

9. Bevan’s Resignation Speech, Tribune, 4 May 1951.

10. One Way Only.

11. Hunter, The Road to Brighton Pier, p.86.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid.

14. Tribune, 18 May 1951.

15. Tribune, 1 June 1951.

16. G.D.H. Cole, Political Quarterly, 1953, p.24.

17. Tribune, 7 March 1952.

18. Tribune, 26 September 1952.

19. Cited, Tribune, 10 October 1952.

20. Ralph Miliband, Parliamentary Socialism, London 1961, p.322.

21. Tribune, 9 October 1953.

22. Tribune, 22 January 1954.

23. Hunter, op. cit., p.78.

24. Ibid., p 81.

25. Bob Pennington, Docks: Breakaway and Unofficial Movements, IS 2, Autumn 1960.

26. Tribune, 5 November 19S4.

27. Pennington, op. cit., and Tribune, 10 June 1955.

28. Ibid.

29. Ibid.

30. Tribune, 1 July 1955.

31. Tribune, 3 August 1956.

32. Tribune, 17 August 19S6.

33. Tribune, 2 December 1956.

34. Tribune, 25 February 1956.

35. Tribune, 20 April 1956.

36. Tribune, 26 October 1956.

37. Tribune, 2 November 1956.

38. Tribune, 9 November 1956.

39. Tribune, 28 May 1957.

40. Tribune, 11 October 1957.

41. e.g. Mikardo, Tribune, 12 September 1958.

42. For Marxist discussion of CND, cf. Labour and the Bomb, IS 10, Autumn 1962; Dave Peers, The Impasse of CND, IS 12, Spring 1963; Barry Gorden, After Oxford, What? IS 12, Spring 1963.

43. Tribune, 17 January 19S8.

44. Tribune, 25 July 1958.

45. Tribune, 3 March 1961.

46. Daniel Blair, Tribune, 8 September 1961.

47. Ibid.

48. Tribune, 3 October 1961.

49. In this case, a whole mythology was created to make the commonplace seem extraordinary. For a full critique, cf. E.P. Thompson, The Peculiarities of the English, The Socialist Register 1965, London 1965.

Last updated on 15 November 2009