E P Thompson 1960
Source: A chapter in E P Thompson (ed), Out Of Apathy (Stevens and Sons, London, 1960). Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.
At every point the way out of apathy leads us outside the conventions within which our life is confined.
It is because the conventions themselves are being called in question, and not the tactical manoeuvring which takes place within them, that the gulf which is opening between the young socialist generation and traditional Labour politicians is so deep.
It is a gulf as deep as that which opened in the 1880s between the Lib-Lab politicians and the new unionists and socialists. ‘Mr Gaitskell, if he read it, would certainly not obtain a clear idea of what, in detail, he was supposed to do.’ – this is Mr Crosland’s comment, when reviewing The Glittering Coffin in the Spectator. Mr Howell or Mr Broadhurst, if they had picked up a copy of Commonweal, would have been faced with similar difficulties.
Of course it is generally agreed (as Mr Crosland remarks) that ‘the Labour Party badly needs a dose of iconoclasm at the present moment’. Even psephologists can see that the party requires ‘an influx of youth’ if it is ‘to present itself to the electorate in a mid-twentieth-century guise’. And Transport House Grundies, who have won past battle-honours by decimating youth, are now prepared to encourage angry radical noises in coffee bars on the periphery of the movement.
But the ikons which the Aldermaston generation is breaking are the very ones before which Mr Gaitskell and Mr Crosland bow down: the permanent Cold War: the permanent dependence of Labour upon ‘affluent’ capitalism: the permanent defensive ideology of defeatism and piecemeal reform.
What lies beyond these conventions? Where is the point of breakthrough? Break through into what?
If the image of power must be remade at the base, it must also be remade at the top. The Clause 4 debate within the Labour Party provides every day fresh examples of the way in which concepts of power are concealed within the cloudy metaphors of rhetoric, which attempt verbal reconciliations between traditional socialist loyalties and actual accommodation to capitalism. ‘A clear statement that the party remains committed to capturing... the “commanding heights of the economy"’ – the New Statesman editorialises (5 March 1960) – ‘is the formula on which Mr Gaitskell could surely reunite the National Executive.’
We cannot pretend to prescribe a ‘formula’ which will ‘unite’ the National Executive. But it should be noted that the image of the ‘commanding heights’ offers more than it defines. To some, it may indicate the power of a Labour Chancellor to influence the Bank Rate; to others, the power to introduce a Five-Year Plan covering output of Icelandic cod, Somerset cider-apples and Scunthorpe steel. Are the ‘heights’ those of Monte Cassino or of Hampstead Heath – the one required a certain effort to storm, and its storming was the turning point of a campaign, the other can be reached by tube from Westminster. And are we, by some sudden forced march (the nationalisation of steel and chemicals?) to find ourselves occupying the commanding heights of the economy, while at the same time leaving the Monte Cassino of the mass media of communication in the hands of irresponsible oligarchs?
Mr Gaitskell’s and Mr Crosland’s play with the terms ‘means’ and ‘ends’ is more obviously specious. It is true, of course, that the replacement of production for profit by production for use is (from one standpoint) only a means to the attainment of a Society of Equals. True also that it is only one means among many. But what is obscured in this argument is that without the displacement of the dynamic of the profit motive all other means will prove ineffectual, and it is the definition of this as an essential means which distinguishes the socialist tradition.
This does not mean that nationalisation by state monopoly is the only alternative to private ownership: the debate on other forms (municipal and cooperative) is fruitful. Nor does it mean that there is some automatic relationship between social ownership and socialist institutions or moral disposition: that the superstructure of a ‘good society’ must grow in a certain way once the basis has been established. The Society of Equals cannot be made without a revolution in moral attitudes and social practices too far-reaching to be reduced by any National Executive to a ‘formula’.
But here also we must guard against the specious appeal to morality, the posing of ‘values’ outside the context of power. ‘Socialism’, Mr Crosland tells us:
... denotes a belief in the pre-eminence of certain values, such as equality or cooperation or collective welfare or internationalism. But such values are not absolute. They cannot be held rigidly and uncompromisingly, any more than can the opposite conservative values of hierarchy or competition or individualism or patriotism. (’the Future of the Left’, Encounter, March 1960)
We are back at the game of Happy Families: we can pair off opposite ‘values’ (which are not ‘absolute’), and look for the good society somewhere in the marital blur in the middle. If, however, we were to pair off exploitation and mutual aid, the businessman’s expense account and the railwayman’s wage, advertising and education, nuclear disarmament and Blue Streak, we could reach a different result. For the contradiction which expresses itself in opposed values is grounded in the private ownership of the social means of production. The profit motive remains at the core of our social order, engendering conflicts which by their nature may be controlled or mitigated but cannot be resolved. Nor is this the most important thing. A controlled antagonism may be endurable: they exist even within Happy Families. We might put up with the Opportunity State, knowing that welfare services provide a set of rooms at the bottom for those who don’t go up. But controlled antagonisms are constantly breaking out in new, uncontrolled ways: the compensation received by coal-owners burgeons into profits in light industry: the housing schemes of well-intentioned municipalities sink under the earth beneath accumulated interest repayments: money searches continually for new ways to breed money. And, at the end of it all, we have a society grounded on antagonism. We remain for ever removed from a Society of Equals.
When Mr Crosland, in the same essay, quotes with approval, ‘it may be better simply to say with William Morris that socialism is fellowship’, it becomes difficult to know at what point a serious discussion may be entered. Morris was a revolutionary socialist. In his last years he agreed that the final conquest of power might take place by parliamentary means; but he still feared that the transition would be accompanied by violence of some kind:
We are living in an epoch where there is combat between commercialism, or the system of reckless waste, and Communism, or the system of neighbourly common sense. Can that combat be fought out... without loss and suffering? Plainly speaking I know that it cannot.
Morris was not writing in ignorance of the Fabian alternative expressed in the Essays of 1889. It is worth recalling the terms of his dissent. Shaw proposed that there might be ‘a gradual transition to Social Democracy'; ‘the gradual extension of the franchise; and the transfer of rent and interest to the state, not in one lump sum, but by instalments’. Morris objected that this ignored the essential antagonism at the heart of capitalist society:
The barrier which they will not be able to pass... [is] the acknowledgment of the class war. The ‘socialists’ of this kind are blind as to the essence of modern society. They hope for a revolution, which is not the Revolution, but a revolution which is to ignore the facts that have led up to it and will bring it about... [WM’s italics]
It was not the necessity of a violent revolution upon which Morris was insisting, but upon the necessity for a critical conflict in every area of life at the point of transition. Transition from the system of ‘reckless waste’ to that of ‘neighbourly common sense’ could not be effected by some administrative or fiscal coup d'état. A merely parliamentary socialist party might ‘fall into the error of moving earth and sea to fill the ballot boxes with socialist votes which will not represent socialist men’. If the evolutionary road were followed, he repeatedly asked ‘how far the betterment of the working people might go and yet stop short at last without having made any progress on the direct road to Communism'?
Whether... the tremendous organisation of civilised commercial society is not playing the cat and mouse game with us socialists. Whether the Society of Inequality might not accept the quasi-socialist machinery... and work it for the purpose of upholding that society in a somewhat shorn condition, maybe, but a safe one... The workers better treated, better organised, helping to govern themselves, but with no more pretence to equality with the rich... than they have now.
With the foundation of the Labour Party it seemed that the Fabians had won the argument. The Webbs (GDH Cole commented in 1913) ‘were able so completely... to impose their conception of society on the Labour Movement that it seemed unnecessary for anyone to do any further thinking’. Fabian theories (Mr Strachey added in 1938) ‘not merely false, but almost absurdly inadequate... to cover the complex, stormy, dynamic social phenomena of the twentieth century’ were ‘allowed to become the theory of the British working-class movement’. On the credit side, the advance in the strength of organised Labour, the encroachments of the welfare state; on the debit side, the division of Africa, the slump, two world wars. By 1930 the debate raged once more. ‘It is not so certain today as it seemed in the eighties that Morris was not right’, commented Shaw in his preface to the 1931 edition of Fabian Essays. Throughout the next fifteen years the two outstanding non-Communist theoreticians of British socialism – Harold Laski and GDH Cole – were discussing constructively the nature of the ‘transition’ in Britain, and the ways to circumvent capitalist resistance. But, after 1945, it was not capitalist opposition which was circumvented:
People who talk too much soon find themselves up against it. Harold Laski, for instance. A brilliant chap... but he started making speeches at weekends. I had to get rid of him... GDH Cole was another brilliant chap. A very clear mind. But he used to have a new idea every year, irrespective of whether the ordinary man was interested in it or not...
Thus Lord Attlee on ‘What Sort of Man Gets to the Top?’ (Observer, 7 February 1960). With that sort of man at the top the system of neighbourly common sense might well seem unattainable.
To present the argument in this way is to foreshorten it, and, in the later stages, to caricature it. We have omitted, among other matters of substance, the constructive additions of Syndicalists and Guild Socialists; the injection of the Russian example and of Leninism into the whole debate; the more sophisticated elaborations of post-Keynesian evolutionary theory; and the bedevilment of the whole argument by the ugly practices of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ on the Stalinist model.
But what we mean to direct attention to is the extraordinary hiatus in contemporary Labour thinking on this most crucial point of all – how, and by what means, is a transition to socialist society to take place. For Mr Gaitskell the problem may be irrelevant. The political seesaw is its own justification. ‘The British prefer the two-party system’, he informed a conference of the Congress for Cultural Freedom in 1958: ‘They understand team games and they know it gives them stable, strong government.’ For Mr Gordon Walker (it may be) the goal is clear:
In the antechamber outside the Cabinet room where Ministers gather before meeting, there is a row of coat-pegs. Under each peg is the name of a great office of state... Only Cabinet Ministers hang their hats and coats here – and only in the prescribed order...
Or so he informs the open-mouthed readers of Encounter (April 1956), and we have no special reason to disbelieve him. But there remains a subtle difference between speculation as to which peg you may hang your coat on and which point will disclose the moment of revolutionary transition. Mr Denis Healey and Mr Crosland are anxious to disabuse us of this belief: power (they tell us) is all: when the coats are on the pegs, we may leave it to them:
There is much talk (though rather more in Chelsea and Oxford than in Stepney or Nyasaland) of the dangers of sacrificing principle; what is forgotten is the sacrifice of socialist objectives, not to mention human freedom and welfare, involved in a long period of impotent opposition. (Crosland in Encounter again)
It is not clear which specifically socialist objectives (other than ‘values’ which are not ‘absolute’) Mr Crosland has in mind. Nor do other potential peg-hangers offer us much more enlightenment. ‘The Liberal and Labour movements of the West’, Mr RHS Crossman assures us, ‘have triumphantly falsified the predictions of Karl Marx’:
They have used the institutions of democracy to begin the job of resolving the inherent contradictions of capitalism, evening out the gross inequalities, and transforming the privileges of the bourgeoisie into rights of every citizen. (Also Encounter, June 1956)
But how does one ‘resolve’ an ‘inherent contradiction'? And if the job has been begun at what point does it end? And if the contradiction ends in a socialist ‘resolution’, which predictions of Marx will this triumphantly falsify?
And yet the only sustained approach to this inquiry is in Mr Strachey’s Contemporary Capitalism. ‘Last-stage capitalism’ (he tells us):
... will be succeeded not by still a third version of the system, but by something which it would be manifestly an abuse of language to call capitalism at all. (p 41)
We should certainly be reluctant to abuse language. But meanwhile ‘last-stage capitalism’ abuses our lives, and it would be of interest to learn when the ‘succession’ is due to take place. ‘Democracy’ (he tells us) ‘can hope to bit and bridle last-stage capitalism, and then to transform it, ultimately to the degree that [it] is no longer capitalism.’ (p 281) It seems that we must await a further volume before we may learn what underlies the terms ‘transform’, ‘ultimately’ and ‘degree’. Perhaps Mr Strachey is inhibited by echoes from the past?
It is... impossible for the working and capitalist classes to share the power of the state over a whole prolonged period of social evolution... It is an illusion, in particular, to suppose that the capitalist class will passively allow the political power of the workers to grow and grow, while the Labour Movement pursues a steady policy of socialisation and other encroachments upon capitalism. (John Strachey, What Are We To Do?, 1938)
The absence of any theory of the transition to socialism is the consequence of capitulation to the conventions of capitalist politics. And the political accommodation is complemented by a social and moral accommodation which spreads out into every region of life. Ursula, in The Rainbow, regarded with horror the mining town of Wiggiston where her Uncle Tom was colliery manager, with its rows of houses ‘each with its small activity made sordid by barren cohesion with the rest of the small activities’:
There was no meeting place, no centre, no artery, no organic formation. There it lay, like the new foundations of a red-brick confusion rapidly spreading, like a skin disease.
‘Why are the men so sad?’, she asked her Uncle Tom.
‘I don’t think they are that. They just take it for granted...’
‘Why don’t they alter it?’, she passionately protested.
‘They believe that they must alter themselves to fit the pits and the place, rather than alter the pits and the place to fit themselves. It is easier.’, he said.
The dialogue reminds us of Mr Crosland’s incomprehension before The Glittering Coffin: ‘Smashing Things’ was the title of his review. True, the miners have altered their environment, to a greater degree than most other workers. True, the smoke-stained squalor of red brick gives way before the garish squalor of neon and white tile. But the accommodation continues, there is no more ‘organic formation’ or active, liberating social cohesion than before. The point is not that we assent to all of Ursula’s emotional Luddism ('we could easily do without the pits’), but that conventional Labour politics have narrowed to a region of legislative manipulation where Ursula’s protest is met with blank incomprehension. However the offices were distributed in the last Labour Cabinet, one feels that Uncle Tom’s coat hung from every peg. Mr Gaitskell has written ‘brotherhood’ and ‘fellowship’ into Labour’s Constitution. But the Utopian protest, the vision of new human possibilities constrained within old forms, which is an essential part of the socialist dynamic, has become extinguished in the weary self-important philistinism and the myopic ‘realism’ of the capitalist parliamentarian. Between television appearances, ‘brotherhood’ and ‘fellowship’ can scarcely be thought to have their incarnation in the Parliamentary Labour Party or the TUC.
Two models of the transition (if we may simplify) are commonly on offer. The first, the evolutionary model, is of gradual piecemeal reform in an institutional continuum, until at some undefined point some measure will be taken (A bit more nationalisation? More state controls over the private sector?), when the balance will tip slightly in favour of the socialist ‘resolution’: and we shall acclaim this moment with a change in our terminology. The main participation demanded of the people is to cross the ballot paper thirteen or fourteen million times. This model must be rejected if the evidence and arguments presented in the first part of this book are valid.
It should not be assumed, however, that the model of revolution as presented by some Labour fundamentalists is therefore acceptable. It is not only that its very terms carry an aroma of barricades and naval mutinies in an age of flamethrowers. It is also that the antagonisms of capitalist society are presented in a falsely antithetical manner – without any sense of the contradictory processes of change. An imaginary line is drawn through society, dividing the workers in ‘basic’ industries from the rest. The class struggle tends to be thought of as a series of brutal, head-on encounters (which it sometimes is); not as a conflict of force, interests, values, priorities, ideas, taking place ceaselessly in every area of life. Its culmination is seen as being a moment when the opposed classes stand wholly disengaged from each other, confronting each other in naked antagonism; not as the climax to ever closer engagement within existing institutions, demanding the most constructive deployment of skills as well as of force. It is ‘their’ state versus ‘our’ (imaginary) state; ‘their’ institutions which must be ‘smashed’ before ours can be built; ‘their’ society which must be ‘overthrown’ before the new society can be made. Communists and Labour fundamentalists of the ‘statist’ variety place emphasis upon an hypothetical parliamentary majority which, in a dramatic period of breaking-and-making, will legislate a new state into existence from above. Trotskyists place emphasis upon industrial militancy overthrowing existing institutions from below.
This cataclysmic model of revolution is derived from the Marxist tradition, although it owes more to Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin than to Marx. Two points only can be noted here. First, Marx’s concession that Britain and America might effect a peaceful transition to socialism was negatived by Lenin in 1917 on the grounds that ‘in the epoch of the first great imperialist war’ Anglo-Saxon ‘liberty’ had become submerged in the ‘filthy, bloody morass of military-bureaucratic institutions to which everything is subordinated’. Hence, the necessary preliminary for ‘every real people’s revolution is the smashing, the destruction of the ready-made state machine’. This dictum Stalin ossified (in 1924) into the ‘inevitable law of violent proletarian revolution’.
From this follows a wholly undiscriminating assimilation of all institutions to the ‘military-bureaucratic’. Certainly, no approach to socialism today is conceivable without breaking up the Cold War institutions ‘to which everything is subordinated’ – NATO, the Aldermaston Weapons Research Establishment, and their multiform ramifications. But the point here is that we must discriminate. There is substance in Mr Strachey’s thesis of countervailing powers, provided that we are willing to take up the argument at the point where he fuddles it over. Since 1848, 1917, and notably since 1945, many of our institutions have been actively shaped by popular pressures and by adjustment to these pressures on the part of capitalist interests. But it is at this point that we encounter the second crippling fallacy of the fundamentalist. Since all advances of the past century have been contained within the capitalist system, the fundamentalist argues that in fact no ‘real’ advance has taken place. The conceptual barrier derives in this case from a false distinction in Leninist doctrine between the bourgeois and the proletarian revolution. The bourgeois revolution (according to this legend) begins when ‘more or less finished forms of the capitalist order’ already exist ‘within the womb of feudal society’. Capitalism was able to grow up within feudalism, and to coexist with it – on uneasy terms – until prepared for the seizure of political power. But the proletarian revolution ‘begins when finished forms of the socialist order are either absent, or almost completely absent’. Because it was supposed that forms of social ownership or democratic control over the means of production were incompatible with capitalist state power:
The bourgeois revolution is usually consummated with the seizure of power, whereas in the proletarian revolution the seizure of power is only the beginning... 
From this conceptual inhibition, many consequences flow. From this, the caricaturing of social advances as ‘bribes’ to buy off revolution, and the attribution of supreme cunning to the capitalist system, which by a superb Marxist logic is able to anticipate and deflect every assault by the working class. From this also, the hypocritical attitude which concedes the need to struggle for reforms, not for the sake of the reform but for the educative value of the struggle. Hence, finally, the alienation of many humane people, who detect in the doctrinaire revolutionary an absence of warm response to the needs of living people and a disposition to anticipate the coming of depression or hardship with impatience.
But if we discard this dogma (the fundamentalists might meditate on the ‘interpenetration of opposites’) we can read the evidence another way. It is not a case of either this or that. We must, at every point, see both – the surge forward and the containment, the public sector and its subordination to the private, the strength of trade unions and their parasitism upon capitalist growth, the welfare services and their poor-relation status. The countervailing powers are there, and the equilibrium (which is an equilibrium within capitalism) is precarious. It could be tipped back towards authoritarianism. But it could also be heaved forward, by popular pressures of great intensity, to the point where the powers of democracy cease to be countervailing and become the active dynamic of society in their own right. This is revolution.
There is not one abstract revolution which would have assumed the same form in 1889, 1919 and 1964. The kind of revolution which we can make today is different from any envisaged by Marx or Morris. Our coming revolution could be a ‘consummation’ of some things, a ‘beginning’ of others. Nor is there only one kind of revolution which can be made in any given context. A revolution does not ‘happen’: it must be made by men’s actions and choices.
It is not the violence of a revolution which decides its extent and consequences, but the maturity and activity of the people. Violence does not make anything more ‘real’. 1789 was not more secure because it was cataclysmic, and 1917 was not more socialist because socialists seized power by force. It is possible to look forward to a peaceful revolution in Britain, with far greater continuity in social life and in institutional forms than would have seemed likely even twenty years ago, not because it will be a semi-revolution, nor because capitalism is ‘evolving’ into socialism; but because the advances of 1942-48 were real, because the socialist potential has been enlarged, and socialist forms, however imperfect, have grown up ‘within’ capitalism.
The point of breakthrough is not one more shuffle along the evolutionary path, which suddenly sinks the scales on the socialist side (51 per cent in the public sector instead of 49). An historical transition between two ways of life cannot be effected by an entry in a ledger. Nor, on the other hand, will it be effected by the intrusion into the Commons of a new species of anti-political politician – till at length Ursula’s duffle-coat, stained with Partisan coffee, hangs from every peg. But can we be satisfied with the formula of a ‘conquest of class power'? Which power? Vested in whom? The cataclysmic model offered dramatic symbols – the storming of Bastille or Winter Palace. But what are we to storm? The Institute of Directors? The National Coal Board?
Certainly, the transition can be defined, in the widest historical sense, as a transfer of class power: the dislodgment of the power of capital from the ‘commanding heights’ and the assertion of the power of socialist democracy. This is the historical watershed between ‘last stage’ capitalism and dynamic socialism – the point at which the socialist potential is liberated, the public sector assumes the dominant role, subordinating the private to its command, and over a very great area of life the priorities of need overrule those of profit. But this point cannot be defined in narrow political (least of all parliamentary) terms; nor can we be certain, in advance, in what context the breakthrough will be made. What it is more important to insist upon is that it is necessary to find out the breaking point, not by theoretical speculation alone, but in practice by unrelenting reforming pressures in many fields, which are designed to reach a revolutionary culmination. And this will entail a confrontation, throughout society, between two systems, two ways of life. In this confrontation, political consciousness will become heightened; every direct and devious influence will be brought to the defence of property rights; the people will be forced by events to exert their whole political and industrial strength. A confrontation of this order is not to be confined within the pages of Hansard; it involves the making of revolution simultaneously in many fields of life. It involves the breaking up of some institutions (and the House of Lords, Sandhurst, Aldermaston, the Stock Exchange, the press monopolies and the National Debt are among those which suggest themselves), the transformation and modification of others (including the House of Commons and the nationalised boards), and the transfer of new functions to yet others (town councils, consumers’ councils, trades councils, shop stewards committees, and the rest).
As the kind of revolution which is possible has changed, so has the kind of potential revolutionary situation. We need no longer think of disaster as the prelude to advance. In one sense, we are now constantly living on the edge of a revolutionary situation. It is because we dare not break through the conventions between us and that situation that the political decay of apathy prevails. But such a revolution demands the maximum enlargement of positive demands, the deployment of constructive skills within a conscious revolutionary strategy, the assertion of the values of the common good – or, in William Morris’ words, the ‘making of socialists’. It cannot, and must not, rely exclusively upon the explosive negatives of class antagonism. And this is the more easy to envisage if we cease to draw that imaginary line between the industrial workers and the rest. The number of people who are wholly and unambiguously interested in the defence of the status quo is small, despite Ralph Samuel’s warnings of the growing retinue of the corporations. Alongside the industrial workers, we should see the teachers who want better schools, scientists who wish to advance research, welfare workers who want hospitals, actors who want a National Theatre, technicians impatient to improve industrial organisation. Such people do not want these things only and always, any more than all industrial workers are always ‘class conscious’ and loyal to their great community values. But these affirmatives coexist, fitfully and incompletely, with the ethos of the Opportunity State. It is the business of socialists to draw the line, not between a staunch but diminishing minority and an unredeemable majority, but between the monopolists and the people to foster the ‘societal instincts’ and inhibit the acquisitive. Upon these positives, and not upon the debris of a smashed society, the socialist community must be built.
And how is this to be done? At this point a new volume should begin.
The elaboration of a democratic revolutionary strategy, which draws into a common strand wage demands and ethical demands, the attack on capitalist finance and the attack on the mass media, is the immediate task. It demands research and discussion: journals, books, Left Clubs. It demands organisation for education and propaganda. It demands the exchange of ideas between specialists and those whose experience – in nationalised industry or in local government – enables them to see more clearly than the theorist the limits of the old system, the growing-points of the new.
It demands also a break with the parliamentary fetishism which supposes that all advance must wait upon legislative change. Most popular gains have been won, in the first place, by direct action: direct action to increase wages, improve working conditions, shorten hours, build co-ops, found nursery schools. We do not need even a ‘formula’ from the NEC of the Labour Party, before we can form tenants’ associations or socialist youth clubs, write plays or force upon the Coal Board new forms of workers’ control.
Nor should this be seen as an alternative to the work of the existing institutions of the Labour Movement. The defenders of Clause 4 are, in one sense, holding firm to the concept of socialist revolution. Too often the concept is defended out of religious loyalty. What is required is a new sense of immediacy. Socialists should be fighting, not a defensive battle for an ambiguous clause, but an offensive campaign to place the transition to the new society at the head of the agenda. In this, the protest of the Aldermaston generation, and the traditional loyalties of the Labour rank-and-file could – although they will not automatically do so – come together in a common agitation.
In the end, we must return to the focus of political power: Parliament. It is here that the prospect appears most hopeless, the conventions strongest, the accommodation most absolute. But we need not despair. It is the greatest illusion of the ideology of apathy that politicians make events. In fact, they customarily legislate to take account of events which have already occurred. (Did Lord Attlee really free India? Did Lord Morrison of Lambeth wrest the pits from the coal owners?) Of course, more socialists must be sent into Parliament. But, in the last analysis, the context will dictate to the politicians, and not the reverse. And socialists must make the context.
Meanwhile, our local problems are contained within the larger context of nuclear diplomacy and imperial retreat. From this, an opportunity and a challenge. The opportunity for a revolutionary breakthrough might as possibly arise from international as from local causes. Should the protest in Britain gain sufficient strength to force our country out of NATO, consequences will follow in rapid succession. The Americans might reply with economic sanctions. Britain would be faced with the alternatives of compliance or of a far-reaching reorientation of trade. The dilemma would agitate the consciousness of the whole people, not as an abstract theory of revolution but as an actual and immediate political choice, debated in factories, offices and streets. People would become aware of the historic choice presented to our country, as they became aware during the Second World War. Ideological and political antagonisms would sharpen. Non-compliance with America would entail winning the active, informed support of the majority of the people for policies which might bring with them dislocation and hardship. One choice would disclose another, and with each decision a revolutionary conclusion might become more inescapable. Events themselves would disclose to people the possibility of the socialist alternative; and if events were seconded by the agitation and initiatives of thousands of organised socialists in every area of life, the socialist revolution would be carried through.
Of all Western countries, Britain is perhaps the best placed to effect such a transition. The equilibrium here is most precarious, the Labour Movement least divided, the democratic socialist tradition most strong. And it is this event which could at one blow break up the ‘log-jam’ of the Cold War and initiate a new wave of world advance. Advance in Western Europe, and further democratisation in the East, may wait upon us.
Is it useless to wait? Will Iceland or Italy break through first? Will Britain founder under old habits, rotting institutions, its hull encrusted with nostalgia, drifting half-waterlogged into the twenty-second century, a bourgeois Spain among the socialist nations? It would be foolish to be sanguine. But foolish also to underestimate the long and tenacious revolutionary tradition of the British commoner.
It is a dogged, good-humoured, responsible, tradition: yet a revolutionary tradition all the same. From the Leveller corporals ridden down by Cromwell’s men at Burford to the weavers massed behind their banners at Peterloo, the struggle for democratic and for social rights has always been intertwined. From the Chartist camp meeting to the dockers’ picket line it has expressed itself most naturally in the language of moral revolt. Its weaknesses, its carelessness of theory, we know too well; its strengths, its resilience and steady humanity, we too easily forget. It is a tradition which could leaven the socialist world.
1. The quotations here are taken from Stalin’s On the Problems of Leninism (1926); but the influence of this concept is to be found far outside the Communist tradition [Author’s note].