Peter Sedgwick

The Left Reformist

(Spring 1963)

Peter Sedgwick, The Left Reformist, International Socialism (1st series), No.12, Spring 1963, p.29. (review)
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Aneurin Bevan: A Biography, Volume I: 1897-1945, Michael Foot, MacGibbon & Kee, 45s.

Aneurin Bevan: Cautious Rebel, Mark M. Krug, Thomas Yoseloff, 30s.

The late reviewer has the advantage that his readers are already schooled by more punctual critics in at least some of the elements of the book in question. The brilliance and importance of Michael Foot’s biography will need no underlining by now. One need only add that it is a first-rate text in Socialist education on the social and political history of the Twenties and Thirties. Every political battle that Bevan waged up to 1945 is not only reviewed but re-fought. In each case the ancient enemies of Tory exploitation and Labour connivance are identified in detail and denounced anew. The respectable versions of Labour’s history, as purveyed in memoirs like Dalton’s or biographies like Bullock’s, are blasted with all the heat that may prevent their congealing into received truth. From time to time the murky past of a contemporary leader, a Gaitskell or George Brown, will be minuted in an incidental but withering aside. Throughout this book the record of past struggles is unashamedly made over into a component feature of present struggles. And this is as it should be, since in this instance truth is not thereby sacrificed.

This is of course very uncritical biography, with an immensely close and detailed focus upon events which were not necessarily important (except to the Left itself) at the time they happened. Sometimes Bevan’s particular role in an issue is magnified at the expense of others’ glory. But this kind of distortion is generally so obvious and open that it is harmless, In any case, there is a sense in which, for example, the fight against the persecution of militants under the wartime regulation 1 AA was as essential as the gigantic military struggle against fascism abroad. Bevan, too, deserves his limelight. In the era of Chamberlain (whose vicious measures against the unemployed were of a piece with his pro-fascist foreign policy), Bevan’s oratory was indeed not the only vial of wrath poured out to blister Tory heads. But the venom that was brewed in this vessel held a uniquely sharp and potent burn which can still serve to shock our own complacency as we read the speeches in relative mildness of print. Bevan’s father had died coughing in his son’s arms, of pneumoconiosis. There have not been many Labour politicians, of Left or Right, whose politics have been grounded in experience of a comparable intensity.

On the other hand, Foot never gives us any clue to the later political degeneracy of Bevan. Nothing is easier, of course, than to trace a plausible continuity between a renegade’s corruption and his earlier years in the cause. To take the case of, say, a vague Socialist who later becomes a Communist then breaks with the CP and embraces Trotskyism, then becomes a Trotskyist-revisionist, then a Social-Democrat and perhaps finally a Catholic: Communists will see this career as clear evidence of the identity of Trotskyism with reaction, Trotskyists as proving the inevitable doom of all deviationists from their line, and agnostics as yet one more example of the kinship of the Marxist and the Papist dogmas. Nonetheless, where a biographer is dealing with a renegade (and Bevan was one by the time he died) it is his duty to, examine the earlier career of his subject with a view to suggesting some explanation of later developments. This Foot does not do, largely (one suspects) because he shares Bevan’s earlier beliefs so completely that he cannot examine them from a critical standpoint. It is rather surprising that Bevan’s classic statement of his Parliamentarism (on the first page of In Place of Fear) is never even quoted: here Bevan speaks of ‘the one practical question, where does power lie in this particular State of Great Britain, and how can it be attained by the workers?’ Parliamentary democracy is seen as ‘a sword pointed at the heart of property-power. The arena where the issues are joined is Parliament’ (ibid., p.5). This is quite clearly the perennial reformist position, albeit stated in very combative terms. The problem is seen as that of bringing a working-class chauffeur to the wheel of the bourgeoisie’s political vehicle. Chauffeurs, as is well known, adopt their masters’ livery, just as soon as a suit can he tailored to fit them.

Equally absent from Foot’s treatment is any view of the complexity in the motivation of the Left-wing MP. Bevan’s political alignments are seen as prompted by pure and unremitting idealism, without taint of compromise except in a strictly tactical sense. It is as though Nye had lived by the wonderful maxim coined by the philosopher-saint Simone Weil: Never Calculate. (A maxim which, we may add, contains a clear of sense as well as of unreality.)

In fact, though, there is not one copy-book Marxist alive in the world whose Marxism would not be subjected to intolerable strains by a Parliamentary environment. All kinds of sly and wily alliances are continually and necessarily formed within and across the Left, and the Left in the House of Commons is second to none in slyness and wiles (to none, that is, except the Right in the House of Commons). No formula has been devised which would mark off in advance of situations the limits of permissible compromise, the point at which canniness becomes opportunism. We may add that opportunism is no less evident for all this, and no less disgusting, once it takes place It is interesting that on practically the only occasion in Foot’s book when a private document by Bevan is cited as evidence of the man’s inner state of mind, the effect is distinctly evasive: the text in question is to be found on p.154 of the book, and is from a private letter by Bevan giving his reasons for not joining the Socialist League at its outset: ‘... I want to he as free as possible from personal entanglements and those obligations arising out of associations which tend to obscure one’s vision and limit one’s freedom of decisions.’ In the absence of other personalia from Bevan (and he seems to have committed remarkably little to private writing) this bit of shiftiness from 1932 has an importance of its own.

If Michael Foot’s Bevan never calculated, the one depicted by Dr Mark M. Krug seems to have done little else. There are two rather irrelevant chapters on Welsh history and nationalism, fifty or so rushed pages covering the same period as Foot’s volume, and two hundred more on Bevan’s career from 1945 to 1960. This last section is, pending the appearance of Foot’s second volume, a useful outline, whose tone varies between alarm at Bevanite ‘anti-Americanism’ and a final recognition that Nye was ‘a proud Britisher who considered the British parliamentary system by far the best form of government yet devised by men ...’ Krug, however, is at least critical, and documents the many vacillations and silences of Bevan before his final break with the Left.

Peter Sedgwick


Last updated on 19.10.2006