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International Socialism, Winter 1961


Notes of the Quarter

2. Labour’s Sickness


From International Socialism (1st series), No.7, Winter 1961, pp.3-4.
Transcribed by Mike Pearn.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
Proofread by Anoma Cartwright (May 2008).


‘Gaitskell must go’ was among the most foolish slogans ever shouted on the left, and not just because it suggested support for Mr Wilson or for Mr Brown as Leader of the party. Much worse, it suggested that the crisis in the Labour Party was a crisis of leadership. But any crisis of leadership that there may be is only a symptom of something much more disturbing – the death of social democracy.

The Labour Party has never fitted neatly into political categories, because it has always been a coalition, a coalition in which there has been a partnership between highly articulate liberal administrative reformers and often inarticulate social democrats. The reformers wanted to see unemployment eliminated, inefficient industries disciplined, and an expanding and prosperous economy. Sometimes they have been very much interested in democracy. Mosley was their worst representative, the Webbs their best. While the reformers calculated, interviewed, contrived, the social democrats sang Jerusalem and the Red Flag. They had a vision of a new social order which turned electioneering from a mundane duty into a sacrament.

This partnership of social democracy with liberal reform cut across the familiar alliance of trade unions with parliamentary party. Often the two sides might be united in the same man. The cost of the partnership was a vagueness about the future for which a high price has now been paid. For social democracy and its hope was whispered the mass of the party and not only of the avowed Left; the defence of Clause 4 was a tribute to the lingering strength of a tradition whose death-warrant was finally signed at Blackpool.

At Blackpool the party was committed to liberal reform; for social democracy has ceased to appear as even the semblance of a third way between revolutionary socialism and liberal reform. The conditions on which it was able to appear as such have all but disappeared. They were three-fold.

The first was the existence of a strong Labour movement convinced that its ends could not be gained by industrial action alone. As industrial action becomes more important in the eyes of the worker, as it does in an affluent society, political action becomes less important. It is only at very rare moments that industrial action for political ends can hope to come on the agenda. In an expanding capitalist economy such as ours, increase in working-class militancy is to be expected both because of the strain of speed-up which management imposes on the worker and because of the relatively imposing wage gains which can be made. But because these are the very factors which promote militancy, so industrial militancy is not – in the short run – a prelude to, but an alternative to, political and especially parliamentary action. There are exceptions, of course. Frank Cousins’ threat to fight the pay pause industrially, made at Blackpool, was in a fine tradition. It vitalized the conference. But such exceptions are becoming fewer.

Secondly, social democracy could only be effective where there was a capitalist class sufficiently weak to need to cooperate with it in a parliamentary regime. The classical instances were those where capitalism could not plan for its own overall interests and called in social democracy to do the planning for it. So in 1945 capitalist industry needed, even if it did not always want, the reorganization of coal and other basic industries, the joint replanning of road and rail transport, and so on. But to-day nationalization, as in the case of steel and road transport, represent curiously contradictory demands. They might help to rationalize industries which are not so efficient as they could be. But about this Labour Party supporters have not much reason to be enthusiastic. At the same time capitalism is strong enough neither to need nor to want this rationalization.

Thirdly, social democracy can hope to stay in power, if sufficiently adroit, long after socialist consciousness in a country has been fatally weakened. Witness Sweden. But social democracy could never hope to come to power unless there was a widespread consciousness of alternative possibilities facing society. This consciousness has not only disappeared to a large extent in Britain as compared with 1926 or even 1945; the Right wing of the Labour Party has played a major role in helping destroy it. Their insistence upon the unalterable character of political and economic circumstances was exactly what was needed to create a Conservative electorate.

How in the light of this do we assess Blackpool? The failure of the leadership of the Left, the survivors from social democracy, needs no emphasis. On public ownership they simply asked for more of the same irrelevant type of nationalization. On the Common market they talked nonsense about the Commonwealth. On unilateralist Frank Cousins gave the impression that the role of the Campaign for Democratic Socialism in the Labour Party deserves more attention than the role of NATO in world politics.

The failure of the liberal reformers on the Right however was just as striking. Not a single nettle was grasped firmly. The public schools, though reformed, will remain. The Common Market is a fence to be sat on. The House of Lords is to have faces made at it. Royal Commissions and government inquiries will abound. There is to be enough public ownership to antagonize those who are opposed to it, without doing anything to encourage those who believe in it. The Right have at last hit on one program which has few links with class aspirations and yet contains a great deal to antagonize the middle-class voter. To have done this in the interest of wining an election would be comic if it were not tragic. And it is tragic in a proper sense that so much human and socialist hope should end like this.

The correct response to this is certainly to ‘fight, fight, and fight again’. In a way it will be easier. As the party slips rightwards, the obstinate, the traditional, the rebellious, and the youth turn left and solidify around more coherent programs. But we must not waste our resources in doing so. The quarrels among the leadership over whether Left or Right are to sit in the front pews at the Labour Party’s funeral should be left to those with a taste for political graveyards. What socialists must remember is that the Labour Party will be an unconscionably long time a-dying. Moreover there will be spasms as rigor mortis sets in. If Lord Home, Mr Selwyn Lloyd and Sir David Eccles really put their mind to it, one of these spasms might just result in a Labour election victory. But this is very dubious and the end is foredoomed anyway. What should socialists do?

We cannot now transform society. What we can help transform are the people who will remake society: workers and students, trade unionists and Young Socialists. Socialists still have to be where the labour party is simply to make sure that the sight of what is happening to the party leads to understanding and not to misunderstanding. The politics of making socialists is not easy. But put beside the politics of worrying over the election of a Labour government it is incomparably less Utopian and more realistic. So far as Social Democracy is concerned, Gaitskell has gone and he has taken the party with him. What he cannot take with him is the substance of the Labour Party’s past life. That remains in thousands of loyal party workers who have for years faced increasing disillusionment. Now that the hopes of Social Democracy are buried, we have to begin on the long, slow, patient task of showing what the socialist alternative to liberal reform is.

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