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International Socialism, Summer 1961


Notes of the Quarter

4. Theory in the Movement


From International Socialism (1st series), No.5, Summer 1961, pp.3-4.
Thanks to Ted Crawford & the late Will Fancy.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Revolutionary Socialist: If only the movement would take theory seriously! (Sound of axes being ground off-stage, left.)
Right-Wing Trade Unionist: I didn’t join this movement to see it destroyed by a lot of doctrinaire intellectuals. And anyway here’s a letter from the NEC notifying you of your expulsion. (Jerusalem is sung off-stage, right).

– Old Play

Most discussions on the place of theory in the life of the Labour movement follow the same pattern. Left-wing doctrinaires and right-wing empiricists conduct a stereotyped debate in which the doctrinaire means by ‘theory’ his own particular dogmatic schematism and the right-winger means by ‘practical realism’ adaptation to the existing order with the least possible fuss and trouble. The result is an incredible muddle in the minds of most members of the Labour movement. People respond to slogans as to stimuli. There are no common accepted standards by which different proposals can be measured. Gaitskell was in part beaten on Clause 4, not by socialist principle and reasoning, but by a fetishism over nationalized property which is the counterpart to the fetishism of managerial efficiency among Gaitskell’s supporters. It is scarcely surprising that the unity of the Labour Party becomes an overriding consideration with those who possess no perspective by means of which they might assess alternative possibilities of advance. Even if the word ‘movement’ has become farcical they would like to be reassured that it still exists.

The history of the movement witnesses to the attenuation of this perspective. Even at the very low ebb of the Attlee-Morrison epoch of the early thirties the Labour movement envisaged a socialist future to which the concrete acts of reformism would form a bridge. If they found it difficult to give a date to that future, at least they did not lack what contemporary Labour leaders lack, any conception of a Britain which is not just an expanded version of the present. There is no sense of any reservoir of possibility, of any contradiction between what workers are made into by the system and what they are themselves, of any form of community of a radically different order. The past becomes a blank chronicle as a result of this view of the future. Labour history becomes a luxury for academics, instead of a guide to working-class action.

A natural and a marked reaction to the drabness of the contemporary socialist mind is Utopianism. The trouble with Utopias is that they provide an ideal cover for a retreat into compromises with the present. If one matches up the grey bleakness of the contemporary prospect with the brightness of a socialist ideal, one is at once challenged by the need for some actualizable, practicable version of the ideal in the here and now. And what one can always provide (and it is all that one can provide if one is misguided enough to accept the challenge) is a tarted up version of liberal reform and an exercise in isolated self-satisfaction. Consider the sad story of New Left Review and the mass media. The New Left was in the lead in exhibiting the bondage of consciousness under contemporary capitalism and its incompatibility with the kind of communicating and conscious agency which men in a socialist society would exercise. But what a descent has occurred between its earlier positions and its supplement on television submitted to the Pilkington Committee, a supplement indistinguishable in sentiment from a Bow Group pamphlet. What made it so indistinguishable was the acceptance of a concept of a single unitary society in which ‘popular’ and ‘highbrow’ culture coexists. This concept silently took the place of the socialist concept of a divided society with a false consciousness of a unity of social life, in which the true class divisions are refracted and distorted into the ‘popular’ – ‘highbrow’ antithesis.

What misled NLR was its abandonment of any overriding concern with working-class consciousness. What overcomes the falsehood and completes the truth in Utopianism is what shows the ideal as potential in the energies of workers. The self-changing activity of workers in their assault on contemporary social forms then becomes more important than questions of what can be practicable in relation to existing institutions. The task of the theorist is as a result two-fold, He has to create a dialogue in which the worker hears not a single voice telling him what to think, but conversation going on in which he can at first take part and then make his own. This necessitates the kind of non-sectarian platform which it must be the job of a journal like International Socialism to provide. But no account of the right kind of theoretical discussion will avail unless it is made available to workers. The lack of organization to carry on systematic education and propaganda is a reflection of the theoretical weakness of the British Labour movement. The discussion meetings which Left Clubs foster or the occasional meetings organized by Labour Party organizations are no substitutes for systematic education. How such education might be provided either by reviving existing organizations or creating new ones is a topic on which discussion from readers is invited.

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