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Henry Judd

On Tanks and Dentures

The Significance of Bevan’s Resignation

(May 1951)

From The New International, Vol. XVII No. 3, May–June 1951, pp. 159–163.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

“The essence of Mr. Bevan’s position is not that he objects to tanks but that he rates them lower than dentures.” (The Economist, April 28, 1951)

The dramatic resignation of Aneurin Bevan and his supporters from the administration of Britain’s Labour Government has a dual significance which must be grasped separately. On the one hand, it has brought to a head the crisis in Anglo-American relationships. This aspect has, of course, received the greater notice in the world press. It involves both the question of raw materials and the price to be paid for them – both matters now largely controlled by American capitalism – as well as the issue of how extensive and “committed” shall British foreign policy be in terms of American policy. As is well known, it is the charge of Bevan and his comrades that American monopolization of raw materials, plus price control over the world market, have had the effect of slowly but steadily strangling the Labour Government whose economic existence depends on its ability to import, an ability which in turn is dependent upon the delicately controlled economy of the country. The validity of the charge is evident. One need only examine the interim production report of Charles E. Wilson to verify this. The other charge – i.e., the tendency of the Labour Government to capitulate to American foreign policy – is more closely related to what we may properly call the internal, or domestic, significance of the Bevan crisis.

This aspect concerns nothing less than the future and perspective of not only the Labour Government, but the Labour Party itself. This is the real crisis which cannot be surmounted by some tactical gesture or generosity on the part of America, but will be resolved only after a long and severe crisis within the British labor movement itself. Naturally, socialists are far more interested in this side of the question than the more transitory features, and our article will concern itself with this. Put concretely, whatever may have been Bevan’s intentions, he has raised the problem of the future of socialism and the socialist movement in England. Shall the Labour Government, with its accomplishments and its failures, continue along the road of the past six years; shall the limited social transformation already described in detail (cf. The New International, Jan.–Feb. 1951) be sustained and deepened; or shall everything be sacrificed and liquidated? Even though the backsliding against which Bevan has raised his eloquent voice may not be of the kind to liquidate certain structural and juridical changes (such as the nationalizations), every socialist understands that a Tory victory would dissolve the remaining progressive core of such changes and reintegrate them into a purely imperialist, political state structure exemplified most clearly in the person of Churchill.

Thus, when The Economist [1] sneers contemptuously at Bevan’s higher rating for false teeth than tanks (reminding us of a prior episode when the fashionable bourgeoisie jeered at Feuerbach’s emphasis, naive though it was, on the human importance of “food”) there is a certain profound truth in the charge. One may, without losing or sacrificing a thing, correctly pose the issue of Labour England’s future in terms of “dentures” (the whole material, social service, socialistic well-being of the English people) as against “tanks” (the whole program of rearmament, dependency upon a purely military defense position, subordination to America and the Atlantic Pact). There is nothing to fear in accepting the terms of the Tory charge, and analyzing the situation in such terms.

How may we best summarize the roots of this crisis? The Labour Party, precariously reelected to office one year ago after a dismal campaign, has steadily lost the original momentum it developed in its great victory of six years ago. The dynamic movement, centered around the original program of nationalizations and social reconstruction contained in the 1945 electoral program, has tended to run down, despite the considerable achievements of Labour’s first five years in power. It would be possible for us to indicate this in many ways and by many details, but its most significant symptom is the drop in popular energy and initiative and the replacement of these initial responses to the Labour victory by widespread apathy, indifference and even hostility on the part of the British working class. Government and party leadership bear responsibility for this.

This process has been clearly and effectively summed up by Professor G.D.H. Cole, founder of the Guild Socialist movement in the ’30s, and sensitive observer of the changing moods of British political and social life. Writing in the New Statesman and Nation (May 5, 1951), Professor Cole poses the problem of how shall socialist democracy effectively counter the organizing ability and capacity of totalitarian Stalinism, with its undoubted successes. In England, says Professor Cole, the same need to organize society effectively exists, and ultimately the same alternative (totalitarian collectivism vs. socialism) will be presented. Cole rejects Stalinism, of course, and suggests that, “The only alternative is to diffuse power, to fling power into many hands, to rely on the people throwing up their own leaders in the groups to which they belong ...”

But – and here is the correct and profound indictment of the Labour Government – this has not occurred in Labour Britain.

“In Great Britain no leadership of this second kind is being built. The Labour Government has not tried to build it. Neither in the nationalized industries nor in the trade unions nor in the Co-operative movement has it given its own stalwarts anything challengingly constructive to do.”

The revolt of Bevan and his supporters, in concrete political, trade unionist and administrative terms, reflects this fatal fact. The resignation speech of Bevan concluded with his statement that Britain had shown the world a possible alternative to uncontrolled American capitalism and Russian totalitarianism. It is the development and expansion of this alternative which have been placed in danger by the dual policy of liquidation of the Labour Party’s internal program and submission to the American international program. To be sure, both issues are tied together and whatever unexpressed illusions may have existed among right-wing Labour Party leaders as to the possibility of constructing their concept of socialism within their own country and the Commonwealth areas have now been dispersed by disagreeable and sharp realities. As the gap between the unorganized left wing of the party, the critical wing which desires to pursue the original course, and the right-wing leadership grew, so did the gap between the right wing and the Tory Party tend to close up. This expressed itself most clearly on the question of a rearmament program, later concretized in the now famous budget for the year 1951.

In January of this year a rearmament program of £4,700,000,000 [2] for the next three years was presented and adopted by the Labour Government. In the budget for 1951, it was proposed that £1,300,000,000 of this be spent over the next year. The budget of the new Chancellor of the Exchequer had a new ring to it when compared to the other five budgets presented since Labour assumed power; or, one might say, it had a familiar ring to it in terms of previous Tory and conservative governments. New financing for further nationalizations was not included, diversion of capital funds for either improvement of the already nationalized industries, or further subsidies to either food or commodity purchasing, or strengthening of the various social services – none of these items was included. Instead, the budget [3] was built around the overridng item of military expenditure mentioned above. Capital expenditure is to be diverted to those industries directly related to the rearmament program with the consequence that the expansion of British industry, direct consequence of the planned economy of the past five years, will now come to a halt. Further, as if to symbolize the reversal of the most sympathetic social movement which we have known since the Russian Revolution, the infamous proposal to charge for dentures and eye glasses was presented. [4] This proposal was deliberately provocative in character since the saving involved was a paltry sum. It was understood as such by all concerned, particularly by Bevan, the man who had created and constructed the National Health Service, one of Labour’s proudest achievements.

In a directed economy such as that of Labour Britain, the budget assumes an importance unknown in capitalist countries. It is a social document indicating the perspective and policy of the government. As such, it was clearly unacceptable to those who proposed to continue the building and strengthening of the power of labor in the country. The burden of the shift to rearmament was to be borne by the domestic consumer, the working masses. Herbert Morrison, spokesman for the Party’s right wing, has admitted that any failure by Britain to obtain sufficient materials to sustain the volume of production upon which present planning is based would weaken the whole economy and depress the standard of living. But he has made it abundantly clear, as The Economist is pleased to recognize, that such a fall in production would be at the expense of domestic consumption, rather than the defense and export programs. The budget, then, must be grasped as a tacit banding together of the conservative labor leadership with the Tory imperialists to halt the constructive social program and divert the economy to an active war footing.

The right-wing Labour Party leadership, backed by a majority of the Trade Union Congress General Council, joined in a common front to blast Bevan. The Tories hastened to their support with similar arguments. One of the charges, presented by Attlee, was that Bevan had originally declared his opposition only to the proposal of health service charges, but had then broadened it to differences over fundamentals such as rearmament, and the directed economy itself. This charge is empty since everyone understands that the deepest principle was involved in the plan to liquidate free health service and that this only symbolized the reactionary character of the budget itself. Bevan’s resignation speech committed him to unstinting opposition to the Government’s financial policy, and to the raising of serious doubts as to the ability of Labour Britain to defend itself, from a national point of view, by those methods now proposed and the strategy represented by the Atlantic Pact.

In the inevitable and comparative calm which has followed this break in the party ranks, it is clear that such issues with their complex and far-reaching implications, are now being discussed. If we include the trade-union membership, the British Labour Party now has 6 million members, by far the most powerful, solid and imposing movement in the world of labor. The support of Bevan, which ranges from the active and energetic association of those around him to a general sympathy with his ideas, is enormous. Its actual extent, in terms of votes and numbers, will no doubt be measured at the annual Labour Party conference held in October. A period of many months lies before the party membership in which to discuss, weigh and reflect upon the issues. In prior days, the leadership would unquestionably have attempted to expel Bevan and his friends. Today, it dares not take such a step; at least for the present. It dares not even curb him from expressing his viewpoint, despite the standing custom that National Executive Committee members must share responsibility with the party and its government, or resign their post. The possibility for a full, free and healthy discussion unquestionably exists and will take place. The perspective for the formation of a serious, integrated and constructive “left wing” within the Labour Party has thus been opened up, for the first time since Labour took power. This perspective is not to be confused with so-called “left wings” organized by various muddleheaded “Trotskyist” elements, together with their newly-found Stalinist allies and fellow travellers. Such indigestible sects play no role in the Labour Party beyond creating confusion, and have no place in a genuine left-wing development.

We shall make no effort to predict the speed or extent to which this perspective may be realized. In terms of the habits and traditions of the British labor movement, it may very well not be a rapid or sensational development. English labor and socialism customarily build slowly, but they build well. Nor do we know what its precise organizational forms or consequences will be. But some of the questions it must take up and attempt to solve are evident enough to state:

In effect, the embryonic left-wing tendencies within the Labour Party not only have the immediate task of fusing together their efforts and energies, but the long-range task of developing their own rounded program and proposals for the multitude of difficulties. In this sense, then, the Bevan development must be understood as but the latest step in the welcome process of socialist regroupment and rethinking which is now going on throughout the world.

* * *


1. The Economist, because it is a valuable source of economic and political information and analysis, is too often forgiven – especially by Marxists – for its vicious and reactionary editorials and policies.

2. £ equals $2.90.

3. For a systematic and detailed analysis of the budget, we refer those interested to the April 21–May 5 issue of The Tribune, organ of the Bevan group.

4. In passing, let it be noted that the British people actually pay in advance for these items through the heavy taxation and rates they pay in general for the various social services; together with the fact that both these medical items have a particular importance for the working man since the poor diet in England results in a high demand for false teeth and eyeglasses.

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