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New Left Review I/60, March-April 1970

Tom Nairn

The Fateful Meridian

‘The history of a party’, wrote Antonio Gramsci, ‘cannot fail to be the history of a given social class . . . writing the history of a party really means nothing but writing the history of a country from a particular, monographic point of view, throwing one aspect of it into relief.’ [1] A. Gramsci, Note sul Machiavelli, pp. 22–23. If this was true of the kind of party Gramsci was thinking of, parties fortified by a combative and internationalist ideology of class struggle, then how much truer must it be of the British Labour Party, which has always turned proudly aside from such ideas and consciously chosen an insular and national ‘road to socialism’. ‘British Socialism’ was in essence the conviction that British realities offered a peculiar and privileged environment for socialist development, an environment not enjoyed by Kipling’s ‘lesser breeds without the law’. In moving to examine this conviction, perhaps the first question one should ask is in precisely what sense the history of British Socialism and the Labour Party can be said to coincide with the history of the British working class. The usual easy assumption (as common on the left as on the right) that Labour is ‘the party of the working class’ hides a morass of problems.

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