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Emanuel Garrett

Viewing the British Elections

What Course for the Labor Party Government?

(March 1950))

From New International, Vol.16 No.2, March-April 1950, pp.69-75.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

From any point of view, the victory of British labor in 1945 was an event of rare interest. The British people expressed their lack of confidence in capitalism. Where it wasn’t an outright affirmation of the wish for socialism, it was at the very least a declaration of willingness to experiment along socialist paths. Thus, the evident bankruptcy of British capitalism, and the restiveness of the British masses combined in the victory of the British Labor Party to reaccredit reformism both as a system of theory and as an instrument of action. By its victory and in its accomplishments, the British Labor government raised issues of profound importance for the socialist movement, and for the capitalist world as well.

Whatever the conclusions one might arrive at, the rule of the British Labor Party certainly elevated into the area of discussion a variety of questions settled in historical experience many times before; notably, the reformist or revolutionary road to power. Here was no MacDonald government of unlamented and shameful memory. Here was a government that had pledged itself to certain aims, and actually carried them through. The aims were limited, but the record of accomplishment was unprecedented.

The years clearly had wrought almost as many changes in the Labor Party as it had in the British Empire. As types, Attlee and Bevin may have represented little advance over MacDonald; they were pressed in the same mold. As leaders, they were inept where they were not criminal, insensitive where they were not bureaucratic, diffident where they were not cowardly. Still no socialist could fail to recognize that changes had been effected in the Labor Party and by the Labor Party. Above all could he not fail to appreciate that this was the party of the British working class and that this working class had resisted both political dispersion and Stalinization.

No amount of underscoring could do this justice. Against an almost universal trend toward the atomization of the socialist movement, the British working class strengthened its cohesion as a political class unit, and gave ample evidence that it expected socialist results. This obviously dictated a course of action to revolutionary socialists; it meant that they could not hope to advance their ideas and organization save by joining with the masses in the party of their socialist (albeit Fabian-reformist) allegiance, and there acting as the leaven for the leftward elements. Even the most unimaginative sectarians had to succumb to this reality.

All the more reason then to assess the recent election most carefully, and with that to weigh the past and future course of the Labor Party. In the election, the Labor Party majority was reduced from overwhelming superiority to a bare majority of six against the combined totals of the Conservatives and Liberals. Was this, then, a defeat for British labor? To answer “Yes” is much too simple. That is the first point that must be made in analyzing the elections.

To be sure, it was generally reported as a defeat in the press. The bourgeoisie the world over was immensely relieved by the revival of the Conservatives. They know that the Labor Party leaders are socialists of an exceedingly mild and tractable disposition. Yet any kind of socialism is to them nightmarish for the times are so uncertain that even a Bevin cannot be relied on to leave private property intact. It is, of course, understandable that the bourgeoisie should seek maximum consolation in the election results. But for the Labor Party leaders to tread timorously in accepting the verdict of “defeat” is quite another matter and only reflects their own political nature.

The working class in its virtual entirety voted Labor. That seems to us a central fact uncontested save in labored reference to random individuals. Moreover, the Labor Party vote increased by roughly a million over the 1945 election; and it would appear reasonable to account for this vote by the adherence of new young voters. In any country, such a vote would be of unsurpassable significance: the whole working class casting a class vote! Think of what this would mean for the United States. And consider its particular meaning for England where the working class is probably closer to being an absolute majority of the population than in any country of the world. The key class of modern society, on whose dynamic strivings rests social progress, registers its conviction. To speak of that as a defeat is ludicrous in the extreme.

But the Tories also increased their vote – and by some two million. We are not trying to minimize any part of the facts. Quite the contrary. If we insist upon the significance of the working class vote, it is precisely because we wish to appraise it in relation to those elements in the situation which impede the progression and consolidation of working-class victory, which undermine the intentions of the working-class electorate. The Tories have reestablished themselves beyond the expectation of any sober analyst, let us say a year ago. To which, we must add: they reestablished themselves beyond any limit’ that need have been allowable given better (socialist) Labor Party policy and leadership.

If a couple of years ago the bourgeoisie in England was a frightened, spiritually splintered class, incapable of defending itself seriously, and certainly incapable of holding its lower middle-class sections in line, today they have undoubtedly regained a considerable measure of confidence and class adhesion. In part, this is inherent in the very situation itself. Fabians notwithstanding, it was certainly unreasonable to expect that the bourgeoisie would not at some time flock to its colors in defense of its basic property positions. With ruin rampant, one section would be played against the other in a limited program of nationalization – 20 per cent said the Labor Party in 1945. But social impulsions are not arrested because a Herbert Morrison fixes a 20 per cent limit.

Nationalization, so to speak, breeds nationalization. There is no justifying the nationalization of railroads, and not of steel; there is no justifying the nationalization of steel and not of chemicals. Not to the. working class anyway; nor to the pressures of economic growth. And beyond the simple legislation of nationalization lies a truly “appalling menace” from which there is no hope of retreat: the pressure to democratize that nationalization. It is grist to the socialist mill if the bourgeoisie lies down and permits itself to be walked over; it is criminal irresponsibility to rest a policy on their never rising to give whatever battle they can.

The very stabilization effected by the Labor government served to encourage the aggressiveness of the bourgeoisie. However, there is no justifying, in socialist terms, the degree of recovery managed by the Tories. (We omit special reference to the Liberal Party, which commands an important position parliamentary-wise because its eight votes can have balance-of-power effectiveness, but which is otherwise of scanty consequence. An anachronism of little social import, it is essentially no different from the Tories on the basic issues, though its representatives can be expected to vote with Labor on some issues. A feeble remnant of a once-powerful party, it literally has to apologize for its existence. The bourgeoisie is unable to afford the luxury of two parties.) Many of the votes added by the Tories may have come from those who were too apathetic or too paralyzed to get out and vote in 1945. This time, the Tories with their hard-driving campaign, did presumably succeed in getting these people- to vote. If so, it still remains to be asked why the Labor government could not have neutralized or won these people over.

In a very true sense, the election was a contest for the middle class – revealing the strength of the Tories and the weakness of the Laborites. In its halcyon period,, the Labor government attached to itself sections of the bourgeoisie trying .to ride – or, perhaps, control – the wave of the future. Generals, admirals, even some industrialists hopped on the wagon. But the upper reaches of the capitalist class could naturally be expected to stand fast on their Tory principles and organization. Similarly there was. no real contest for the working class. Who could even imagine that workers would vote Tory? The Tory party? Impossible. They may be (and are) dissatisfied, with Labor Party policy, but they know the Tories; and they know on which side their class bread is buttered.

There is no way to dissect the vote in such a way that its class components are unmistakable! However, we can draw on the evidence of the pre-election campaign, and from the general evidence of observable trends. Actively or passively, the middle class had little alternative but to go along with Labor in 1945, and a large section of it did. The Tories offered nothing but total doom. As the Labor government initiated its reforms in social services, housing and industry, the middle class went along, and, it would appear, with a fair amount of enthusiasm. However, a point was reached where the best achievements of the Labor government were of only limited value to the middle class. Obviously free medical services mean more to the low-paid proletarian than to the shopkeeper. With the hobgoblins of utter economic collapse chased, the irksomeness of austerity and regimentation could be exploited as an inequitable and unprofitable burden on the middle class unless – unless they had before them a social view so compelling and dynamic in its richness that it would override the irritations.

Attlee did indeed make a conscious play for the middle-class vote. But nothing could have been better calculated than that to lose it. Some left-wingers in the Labor Party emphasized the socialistic aspects of the Labor Party program, but they were not the real voice of the Labor Party officialdom which ignored whatever was socialistic in the formal election platform, and emphasized the moderation of the party, its caution. Attlee presented a true enough picture of himself and his policies. The working class had to stomach it, for the real alternative was unthinkable. The middle class could choose Churchill who at least had the gift of imagination. The Tory program, except in so far as it promised an end to socialistic innovations, was as devoid of specific content as any program could be. Yet its rhetoric was apparently sufficient to captivate a large pan of the rural and middle class electorate.

How value any particular act or statement in an election campaign? There is no standard of judgment However, Churchill’s carefully timed call for a meeting of the Western Powers with Stalin undoubtedly had its effect. It was hypocritical and meaningless, but it was at least a proposition aimed at a region of vital sensitivity – the longing for peace. It was effective the more so as Bevin and Attlee had nothing, absolutely nothing, to say in reply. They called him a blatherskite and his proposition a fraud, neither of which was news. But they had no proposition of their own.

The inability of the Labor Party leadership to propose anything that contains the promise of peace, touches on the core of domestic and foreign policy. By and large the issues of overriding interest in Britain these past four years have been domestic. What progress the government made in the handling of these problems, it contradicted and undermined with a foreign policy as abysmal and indefensible as any that could have been conceived. It is .inconceivable that the people responsible for it should have had even a nodding acquaintance with socialist principles. If the government loosened the Indian jewel in His Majesty’s crown, it was a matter of unavoidable necessity, and hardly a gesture of fraternity. The government’s unspeakable policy with respect to Palestine is too raw and recent to require repetition. Give a point or take one, its behavior in international relations has not been radically distinguishable from that of any imperialist government. Whether with respect to Germany, or the Atlantic Pact, or Truman-sponsored Council of Europe, the record is a damning one.

(During the campaign, the leftist Tribune group, of which Health Minister Aneurin Bevan is the most prominent spokesmen, made journalistic reference to the ECA report which pictured the utter futility of capitalism in Germany, its dependence on the US, and so forth. The party could scarcely exploit this point. For what could one say about the role of the British government in the Ruhr, in the occupation of Germany – in the encouragement of socialist victory in Germany through the action of the German people? What, indeed!)

At its best, Labor Party international policy is manipulative, bureaucratic, “diplomatic” as imperialism values diplomacy. Yet it is here that the most digestible intentions of the Labor government must ultimately founder, even did it envisage uninterrupted rule in the British Isles. International policy cannot be divorced from domestic policy. A socialist policy at home, such as it is, cannot – if only in self-defense! – be separated from a socialist policy abroad. England cannot stand alone, not with twenty, fifty or one hundred and fifty per cent of socialism at home. Socialism in one country is no more tenable an illusion for England than it was for Russia, or would be for the United States – less so. When repulsion is not overwhelming, one can sympathize with the travail of the British representatives in the councils of diplomacy. They maneuver, they try to keep themselves from being entangled in the decrepit economies of Europe, from being vassalized by the United States. Maneuver will not do it, any more than necessary or unnecessary manipulations of the pound sterling will do it.

What possible hope for survival can the British Laborites have economically, what possible vision of peace can they offer – except as they make effort to cement the economic energies of the Western European people, independent of the capitalist colossus overseas and the bureaucratic-collectivist colossus on the continent? How disengage themselves from US talons except by sponsoring a mass, democratic movement for Western European unity, acting in it as the representative of a socialist working class, and thereby breathing into it a democratic, socialist content? How else provide the European masses with an effective instrument to withstand the ravages of Stalinism?

The Labor Party position is indeed a troubled one. Six votes are not enough to maintain a stable government. A new election will likely come in a short time. It is difficult at this time to sec exactly what Conservative policy is. There were indications that the Tories did not intend to provoke a new election too soon. (They would have no easier time governing with the tiny majority which is the best they could hope for.) However, they have at this writing challenged the government on two issues – steel, after Attlee had been stung by Tory pressure into mumbling that his government would effect the laws of Parliament (namely, nationalization), and housing. It may be that the Tories merely wanted to test their strength, and caution the government, rather than actually upset it. In any case, whether the Tories decide it is expedient to force a new election or not, is of relatively small consequence. What is of consequence is that the government pursue such a policy as it has been mandated to by the working class, and which alone can gain ground for Labor should a new election come soon.

It is reported that Richard Cross-man, presumably Aneurin Bevan, and a few other prominent Laborites have called for fulfillment of the party’s platform. This seems to us the only defensible policy, although it is one that the party leadership will effect only under the greatest pressure. There is no other way in which the wish of the electorate can be realized (Labor does have a majority in Parliament!) and there is no other way in which the issues can be gainfully posed should a new election be necessary.

It is not a question of imposing socialism by a 51 per cent parliamentary ballot. Socialism cannot be imposed on a people at all. If socialism rests on the class vitality of the proletariat, it also requires for its success the attraction of the great body of the farming and middle class population. The working- class of England wants socialism. That much it has made clear. It has repudiated the perversion of socialism that is Stalinism. (The Stalinists were beaten in every contest, even in those few areas where they had previously been able to return candidates.) It has, generally, a gradualistic conception of the road to socialism. All right. But it does want advances towards socialism – and so it has mandated its party. Only as its enthusiasm, its creative example, infects the middle class, can the middle class be won to solid support of Labor. The danger is net that the working class will cease to want socialism. Or that it will succumb to the gibberish that things will be the same under the Tories, and that the Tories will not do away with any of the accomplishments of the last four years. Nor is it the greatest danger that they will lose the election when next it comes. (The Australian Labor Party, which is a pretty poor excuse for a working-class party even by comparison with the British Labor Party, lost an election recently. While the bourgeoisie is licking its chops over what it can accomplish while its party reigns, everyone – bourgeoisie included – fully expects a labor victory in the next election.) The danger is that the enthusiasm of British labor, the will to promote its convictions, will be dissipated.

British labor voted for the Labor Party. But not one informed observer has failed to note its disgust. We lack the space to detail its grievances – on wages, prices, a list too large to record. The enthusiasm which characterized Labor’s victory in 1945 is absent in 1949. Austerity and regimentation are tolerable so lone as they pay off ... in less regimentation, in an improving standard of living. in democratic involvement of the masses in socialist construction. And that has not been the direction of Labor Party policy.

The Labor Party accomplished far more than anyone believed it would. That much must be admitted. Very few believed that the Labor government of Attlee-Bevin-Morrison-Cripps would actually nationalize the 20 per cent it promised to in its 1949 platform. Yet it did. One ingredient was lacking, and the working class soon detected it, consciously or otherwise. The Labor leadership was willing, up to a point, to attack the basis of capitalism, that is, private property. It was unwilling to loose the creative energy of the people, to mobilize them for democratic control of industry and the nation. It preserved British democracy, but let it go no further than it ever had – that is, kept it out of production.

What bungling idiocy! The unwillingness of the Labor Party bureaucracy to democratize its nationalization program is understandable, if indefensible. But not even bureaucratic self-interest or reformist timidity can justify their total lack of imagination. There is the example of nationalization of coal, achieved after so many, many years. Were huge celebrations arranged, ceremonies to make the miner feel that this had become his property, that something big had happened? No, the whole thing was handled on a bureaucratic level: a coal owner and a retired admiral were placed in charge and that was that.

Having gone so far, the British worker cannot be content to let it rest there. In 1945, nationalization per se, a moderate housing program, a spectacular health program were in themselves sufficient goals. They are, however, sufficient only to whet his socialist appetite. Reformist or revolutionist, he can see that without his intervention in the direction of the nationalized industry, nationalization is an inadequate accomplishment. Hence the increasing demand for workers’ control of the nationalized industries (not to speak of the universal demand for a check on price rises, and for better wages). By itself nationalization undermines the capitalist social structure. Where it goes from there is decisive for the working class. It cannot go towards socialism unless the dynamism of the proletariat propels it forward. And that dynamism cannot flourish where it is stifled, restricted, regimented by the Labor bureaucracy.

The problems facing British labor are truly immense. Even with the best and most democratic nationalization program, it would be a long time before productive efficiency would be developed to a level surpassing need. Nor can socialist productivity be imagined on an insular basis, without the collaboration of the people of Europe at the very least. Austerity is perhaps indicated in the nature of the situation. Nevertheless, it is an austerity that can be borne as a trifle if with it there is the promise of greater achievement – by burdening the rich, by increasing the welfare of the poor, by further nationalization, by democratization, by leading the peoples of Western Europe towards independent union, by opening a vista that will inspire the greatest sacrifices and the greatest inventiveness.

So we read the election returns, and there seems to us no other way in which they can be properly read. The vote mandated advance, not retreat. There is no legitimate course open for the Labor Party but to advance.

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