Peter Sedgwick

Labour’s Great Debate

(July 1960)

Peter Sedgwick Discusses Labour’s Great Debate, Socialist Review, July 1960.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

THE Left, Social-Democratic and Stalinist alike, is now torn by bitter debate. Moscow and Peking exchange verbal attacks whose violence is in no way lessened by the “gentleman’s agreement” to avoid identifying the opponent by name. Names, on the other hand, are freely bandied about in our own Labour Party’s debate, sometimes at the expense of the discussion of policy which should take priority over personal abuse.

The solidarities and comradeships of yesterday are forgotten; yet the loyalties and alignments of tomorrow remain obscure. In the uncertainty which hangs over the very existence of the Labour Party in its present form, and over the totalitarian unity of the Communist camp, it is hard for Socialists to find their bearings.

Nevertheless, certain lessons are clear. First of all, the slogan of Unity, taken as an end in itself, has been shown bankrupt. Stalinist governments and Labour politicians alike have for years assured the world and their own followers that dissension must be hushed up, that the organizational boat must never be rocked, that Party Unity must outweigh all other considerations. Unity for what? Unity for Unity; such was the principle, in content if not in words.

Now, however, the enforcers of Unity (via the purge or the proscription) have themselves become disunited. The problems of peace and war, of Socialist versus capitalist power, of the very future of the movement, have forced themselves into the brains of those who thought to postpone such debates forever. It is now possible to look to an issue of Pravda or the next Fabian pamphlet and find there for a change a contest of ideas relevant to the working-class movement.

What a Socialist Party Exists For

Out of Stalinism’s debate, nothing helpful for Socialism will result, except to the extent that the rivalry may strain the faith of the militant Communist workers of France or Italy. The spectacle of rival bureaucrats combing the Highly Selected Works of Lenin for quotations to fit their own case is of no serious interest. Both sides, Soviet and Chinese, are forced to resort to Cold-War gestures in order to prove their own ideological militancy. Whether Khrushchov, Suslov or Mao wins the game, the working class of the world will be the losers.

But, by contrast, the debate in the Labour Party is a vital and serious one, which deserves the attention and participation of all Socialists. The issues of Clause Four and the Hydrogen Bomb are each central problems of the Movement.

In the Labour Party debate they are linked together, and, what is more, merged into the very issue of what a Socialist Party exists for at all. Never since the days of 1917 and 1918, when the impact of World War I and the Russian Revolution forced the Labour Party to define its organisation and objectives, has the Movement been faced with such rock-bottom questions.

The concern of the Left should be to see that the Socialist case on all these issues is presented as a whole. Crossman argues brilliantly for public ownership and attacks the notion of the Labour Party as a respectable “alternative government”: yet he is picked by Gaitskell as a key figure to engineer an unscrupulous compromise over the Bomb – whereby Britain would contribute conventional forces to a NATO armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons.

Stand or Fall Together

The CND organises magnificent marches and pushes one trade union conference after another into the ranks of Aldermaston; yet “politics” is still a dirty word for its leadership, and the Bomb is presented as a problem altogether separate from the system of social and economic power which both feeds on and nourishes the machinery of annihilation.

Robens denounces those Right-wingers who would make the Parliamentary Labour Party accountable to no one but the Whips, and, having thus established his Socialist credentials, departs for the National Coal Board and £10,000 per annum.

It cannot be stated too often: Socialism and anti-nuclear neutralism, Socialism and public ownership, Socialism and rank-and-file control over leaders, stand or fall together. Those who would fragment the struggle for the rights of Conference from the struggle for workers’ control in the mines, or the struggle for unilateralism from the struggle for Clause Four, may indeed play a significant role against the Right ring on this or that issue; but in the long run, such “specialists” of Socialism will sabotage with one hand what they uphold with the other.

No Crystal Ball

Confronted with this unprecedented crisis of policy and leadership, we may be tempted to jump to clairvoyant forecasts concerning an organizational split within the Labour Party. Perhaps the hard core of the Right, Gaitskell, Jay, Wyatt, Crosland and their ilk, defeated at the next Conference or the one after, will lead a large Parliamentary caucus into some association with Liberal politics. Or, again, the Right Wing may manouvre trade union votes against mandates, or produce yet another meaningless compromise out of the hat, and gain a block-card victory at Conference at the expense of the defection of Tribune militants and unilateralist union leaders.

Optimistic blue-prints are no doubt already being drawn up in certain quarters of the Left in preparation for one or the other of these courses.

Socialist Review possesses no crystal ball which would enable us to verify either of these forecasts. Whether the Labour leadership will choose to become a Parliamentary rump like the French Socialist Party, or whether an attempt will be made to force the Cousin’s block out of the Party, or whether a fresh prospect will emerge, unforeseeable at present, is for the moment unimportant. The organisational future of a great mass movement cannot be legislated by this or that Left-wing publication. In the coming months, the actual alternatives will be presented much more clearly as the debate proceeds.

Struggle Has Begun

In any case, whatever the organisational future may be, the policies to be fought for at present remain perfectly clear. Unilateral nuclear disarmament by Britain, and no truck with NATO. Public ownership of large-scale industry and finance, under workers’ control, i.e. Clause Four undiluted. A revolutionary, radical alternative to Toryism rather than the “loyal Opposition” wailing for the “swing of the pendulum” to come their way.

Above all, the crying necessity for involvement in Labour’s policy debate must not blind us to the struggle for human betterment and, decency which takes place daily outside grand conference halls and musty ward rooms. The millions on the block-vote cards may line up on our side for a change; but they will remain a set of figures unless the millions of working-class people that they are supposed to stand for, appear on history’s stage.

Labour’s programme must be changed, but a programme is useless without a living cast. We must be out on the knocker for CND as well as inside the Party. “Private opulence and public squalor” is a fascinating theoretical idea in a pamphlet or review; for miners and teachers, for railwaymen and local government workers it is a hard fact of existence against which thousands of them fitfully, and perhaps negatively, react every day.

The starvation of the “public sector”, apart, of course, from our opulent, yet “public” H-Bomb) can be presented to such workers and employees as a central concept through which to weld their discontents.

In the months to come the Left will be greeted with a combination of back-biting, unprincipled attacks, and complaints that a debate of any kind is going on at all. But there can now be no going back to that stable, complacent Labour Party where dissent was a safety-valve for the few, and the big-union steamroller could be brought out to ride over the protesting minority. Between that time and now the Great Divide has already taken place. The cracks in the earth are still opening, and no amount of official bulldozing will fill them in.


Last updated on 25.11.2004