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Dwight Macdonald

Labor Action Bookshelf

(May 1941)

From Labor Action, Vol. 5 No. 18, 5 May 1941, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Labour in the War
by John Price, with an introduction by Ernest Bevin
Penguin Books. 25 Cents

The Penguin Hansard: Verbatim Extracts from the Official Report of Debates in the House of Commons
Vol. 1: From Chamberlain to Churchill
Vol. 2: The National Effort
Penguin Books, 25 cents each

Here are three volumes in the “Penguin” series which have just reached this country from London and which should be of interest to the readers of Labor Action. Only one of them – Vol. 2 of The Penguin Hansard – is worth the general reader’s quarter, but there is something to be learned from all three.

Price’s Labour in the War is as dull a little book as I have had to wade through in a long time. It’s dull because it is a semi-official volume, written by the political secretary or the Transport and General Workers Union and with a foreword by Bevin which puts on it the official OK of the British trade union bureaucracy. It is written in that interminably long-winded and colorless style bureaucracies seem to favor, a style designed to cover up and conceal rather than to communicate.

To those innocent souls who hope that the British Labor Party, led by Bevin, will bring in socialism bloodlessly and painlessly after the war – for such innocents, this book will make sad reading. For it is clear that Price and his master, Bevin, conceive of the unions as organizations to DEFEND the existing capitalist system, to make it work better and smoother, and not as the spearhead of any working class movement against capitalism. Throughout the book, the emphasis is on how much “labor” has contributed to the war effort, how “reasonable” and “unselfish” the unions have been in subordinating their interests to the “common” war aims.

The more intelligent leaders of the British ruling class realize this full well. As Price writes, with the honest pride of a lackey whose master appreciates his services: “The place of the unions in the state is now recognized in some, though not all, government circles, amongst the better type of employers and in the more enlightened organs of the press.” So intensely respectable is Price, so determined to avoid all unpleasant themes, that, in his chapter on Trade Union Development he performs the miraculous feat of tracing the history of the British trade union movement for the past 150 years without even mentioning the 1926 general strike. (In which, by the way, his leader, Bevin, played a rather shabby part ...)

In defending the British labor movement against the horrid charge that it should have entered the government much earlier in the war, Price writes:

“If Labor members had joined Mr. Chamberlain’s government, they would have had no really adequate opportunity of influencing the conduct of the war. They would have been little more than hostages.”

But how much more than hostages are the Labor members in Mr. Churchill’s government today? It is significant that Price’s book ENDS with the formation of the Churchill-Labor government in May, 1940. Significant because he would have had to do a lot of explaining if he had carried the narrative even through the first six months of the new regime. Why did Churchill last fall accept the official leadership of the Conservative Party? Why was Laborite Morrison replaced in the vital Supply Ministry with the steel magnate, Duncan? Why was Halifax sent to Washington? Why was the Tory whip, Margesson, made Secretary for War? Above all, why has the Churchill-Labor government refused time and again to state its war aims? Mr. Price was well advised to end his book with May 1940.

The Parliamentary Record

Hansard is the British equivalent of The Congressional Record, and these two little books are made up wholly of extracts from this official report of the proceedings in the House of Commons. They are more interesting and valuable than similar extracts from The Congressional Record would be because the actual business of government is carried on to a much greater extent by the British Parliament than by our own Congress. The responsible ministers appear before the House frequently to explain their measures, answer questions, and generally debate the issues with the members of Parliament. (As though Roosevelt and Bull and Stimson were to argue personally for the Lend-Lease Bill in Congress, with heckling and questions from the members.) So these volumes of extracts from speeches give a vivid and often lively picture of political currents in England up through last summer (where they both end).

The first volume, titled From Chamberlain to Churchill, is the least valuable. It is devoted to the broader questions of political and military strategy, to the reactions of the House to the outbreak of the war, the Finnish war, and the Norwegian campaign. There is a good deal of pure oratory here and little that is not already well known. The chief impression one gets is the constant criticism of the policies of the Chamberlain regime and the remarkably stupidity and ineffectiveness of those policies. The bankruptcy of a ruling class which entrusted the defense of its interests to Chamberlain & Co. is underlined on every page.

The second volume, The National Effort, is devoted to the organization and debates through the summer of 1940, arranged under general headings: Munitions, Food, Trade, Labor, General Economic Policy, etc. Since I have already written at length in Labor Action on the British war economy, I won’t go into the content of the book here. It provides a rich mass of data on the subject, even though the selection of extracts (as with the other volume) naturally has a national-patriotic bias. The point must be made once more that it is strategic to end the book with June 1940, since an extension beyond then would show the discouraging (to the patriotic publishers of the Penguin series) fact that the same basic problems which were unsolved under Chamberlain are still unsolved under Churchill.

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