ISJ Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

International Socialism, Winter 1960/61


Notes of the Quarter

1. Labour and the Bomb


From International Socialism (1st series), No.3, Winter 1960/61, pp.1-2.
Thanks to Ted Crawford & the late Will Fancy.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The irony of a Labour Party having to argue whether to accept or reject nuclear weapons might not be widely appreciated, but it can have escaped few people that defense policy and the fate of the party are now mutually contingent. It is on defence that the Left has scored its only significant victory these last years; it is on defense that the Gaitskellite Right has decided to ‘fight, fight, and fight again’.

It is easy to minimize the Left victory at Scarborough, to impute it to the unaudited arithmetic of block voting, or to point to the majority that Gaitskell could claim amongst Constituency Party delegates and, by implication, amongst party activists. The facts remain that this is the first issue for many years on which block vote arithmetic has added stature to the Left rather than the Right, and that the number of unilateralist resolutions to Conference has grown from a handful two years ago to well over one-third this time. On defense, the Left is clearly riding a tide of feeling unique since the early post-war years. This is what has given it a claim to party policy. For the moment, le parti c’est nous.

But it is as easy to exaggerate the extent of victory. However powerful the revulsion from the inhumanities of nuclear logic, it is a revulsion from one isolated component of a policy which has as yet remained unquestioned by the Left at large, as by the bulk of workers. The Bomb is the monster issue of a world divided into nation states, organized by power politics, a world divided – ultimately – into conflicting classes. To fight the Bomb alone, as a separate issue, it might be enough to advance the ‘little England’ arguments given by Cousins. But to fight the complex of which the Bomb is part, it is not. Gaitskell’s policy has strength because it appeals to a fabric of traditions; it is ‘realistic’ because recognisable. The Left has still to find its way to fight Gaitskell’s ‘internationalism’ of states, with an internationalism of its own – of workers.

This is not a matter of merely finding arguments to match Gaitskell’s. The Right’s most powerful weapon is their control of the party and trade union machine and the unscrupulous use they make if it. Long before Scarborough, members of the Municipal and General Workers’ Union saw their unilateralist resolution reversed by an official-convened and official-inspired recall conference; leaders of the Amalgamated Engineering Union have forced their members to face both ways like the two-headed ass. More recently, London and Middlesex Young Socialist Federations have been hammered out of shape under official guidance; and party members known for their activities on the Bomb and related matters have been ousted.

These are mere pointers to what might be. The Gaitskellites will certainly tighten their grip on the Parliamentary Labour Party, even, it seems, at the price of a split. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament is under fire. Most important of all, the Right is attacking the formal suzerainty of Conference over the Parliamentary Party.

The Left is in no position to face Gaitskell’s machine with one of its own. Our organizational resources reflect our weakness in policy magnified by the greater stress we place on convictions and on the spontaneous recruitment of people to implement them. Our strongest weapon would be to link the issue of defense with the stuff of ordinary life on which workers have shown unshakeable convictions to the point of heroism.

From this angle, it is significant that those sectors of workers that have been engaged in industrial struggle latterly – railwaymen, engineers, transport workers – are in general the most outspokenly unilateralist. It is even more significant that the Central London busmen, highly critical as they are of Cousins’ leadership on industrial matters, are solidly behind him on the Bomb issue. It is obvious that progress for the Left lies in breaking down the high stakes of nuclear diplomacy into the small chips of class struggle.

It is here that the Left might show its greatest weakness. There is nothing in the record of its accepted leadership to suggest that it will organize around a program of argument by action rather than by word, or indeed, that it sees any connexion between Boss and Bomb. On the contrary, to date it has remained a prisoner to the basic Gaitskellite assumption: that defense is a national issue, not a class one, and has been able to find none better than the anti-unilateralist Wilson as alternative party leader.

What now? Without mass struggles to force its hand, the Left as led at present, is unlikely to break through to a class analysis and action. It is thus unlikely to break Gaitskell’s hold on the party machine. But neither can the Right view the prospect with equanimity. The defense issue has led them to question the party constitution and therewith the system which left decisions to a handful of trade union leaders. These might like Gaitskell’s policy but they cannot all enjoy his arrogation of power and their own relative eclipse. Pulled by the traditional power structure towards the Left and by the traditional arguments towards the Right, they are unlikely to make a clear-cut decision. On the contrary, impatience with political feuds which cannot be seen to have any direct relevance to their problems will reinforce the many other factors – growth of white-collar occupations, the seeming permanence of full employment, the diversification of conditions within and between industries – pushing towards a decanting of politics from trade unionism. If then Gaitskell wins ultimately, the price the party will be asked to pay is the enormous one of further weakening the links between organized industrial workers and the Labour Party.

The issue of defense is too fateful for reconciliation. The Left might be muddled and disorganized, but it represents a real protest at the suicidal implications of Gaitskell’s policy. It represents the possibility, at least, of embedding anti-Nato politics in the soil of class struggle. It represents the unity and working-class bias of the Labour Party. In order to win, the Left will have to recognize at some point that the fight need be generalized and carried beyond the arid corridors of Party headquarters. Likewise, it will have to conclude that the defence problem cannot be solved in a purely British context, and that the time has come to promote – actively – internationalism as an alternative to Gaitskell’s ‘collective security’.

Top of page

ISJ Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Last updated on 14 February 2010