Eric Hobsbawm is a distinguished scholar and an original thinker, a historian of the first rank and a Marxist of great eminence. The collection of essays provoked by the Marx Memorial Lecture he gave in 1978 on the state of the labour movement in Britain contains some interesting and valuable discussion.footnote＊ It is a merit of the volume to include active trade-unionists as well as intellectuals, a mixture of generations, and representatives of some of the main sections of the British Left. The balance is not as complete as it should be, as the book lacks a sufficient weight of contributions from the political side of the Labour Party. Some of the materials are also rather dated by now. But this is a secondary drawback. The real weakness of the book lies not even in its depressing and discouraging conclusions, but in the serious imbalance which was present right from the beginning of the debate. In one of the essays in the book Raymond Williams pinpoints a problem which lies in the central metaphor of its keynote contribution: the title The Forward March of Labour Halted? implies a single unilinear progress where in fact there have been a series
Central to any examination of the state of the British Labour Movement must be a serious consideration of the international dimensions of Labour politics. Hobsbawm’s contributions do not simply leave out ‘foreign policy’—more significantly, they skirt the whole mesh of structural links of an international character outside of which the current trauma in the Labour Party must remain unintelligible to analysis, benign or otherwise. Let us begin with the obvious. The Social-Democratic ‘split’ which has carried off life peers and MPs in perceptible numbers, but has not detached one single party branch, leave alone constituency organization, and which is nowhere near to disaffiliating even the most oligarchic of union organizations, has consisted almost entirely of members of the ‘European’ faction, originally organized in the Labour Committee for Europe. The secretary of this body, Jim Cattermole, together with Jenkins, Williams, Owen and Rogers, assembled the core of this breakaway. Doubtlessly some humane people, not only from the middle classes, have rallied to the new organization. But the real ground of the founding schism was commitment to the eec, and in British circumstances this commitment is one that is unlikely to be shared by a mass movement of working people, whose unions face the destruction of one section after another of their employment in a competition which none of them can win. The sdp does not even threaten to form a workers’ party, and is apparently receiving large business endowments from that powerful sector for whom the eec is indeed a ‘forward march’. That a Labour Party could appeal to some small capitalists, if it evolved political options sufficiently open, is beyond doubt.footnote1 But no Labour Party could
Of course, the Labour argument about the eec is often conducted within a messy framework of chauvinistic assumptions. The gluiest sentiments to be found in this field, however, come not from the Left, but from the solid Centre-Right: it is the Shores and Silkins who topple most easily into a Little-England swamp. On the Left, Tony Benn’s Lisbon speech about the regeneration of Europe provides a welcome contrast.footnote2 This far-seeing text raises the whole question of the Cold War division of Europe, and opens perspectives far wider than those of eec orthodoxy. In any case, Labour has now lost its hard-core Europeans. Nobody on the left has said that this is a ‘good riddance’, largely because the culture of a broad church goes along with the widespread acceptance of the catholic doctrine ‘hate the sin but not the sinner’. Yet cold-blooded agnostic analysis, of the kind at which Hobsbawm hints but fails to provide, surely indicates that there has been a certain inevitability about this process. Hard-headed political scrutiny, surely, would indicate that there are other squared circles which are liable to flip roundly back to shape as current political crises take their course. Preeminent among these is the Atlanticist crisis. This could not have been more completely encapsulated than it was in Labour’s deputy leadership campaign, where Tony Benn defended Labour’s main policy commitments, including that to thoroughgoing nuclear disarmament, against Denis Healey who made it public that he would not ‘serve’ in a unilateralist Labour Government. Denis Healey’s television threat meant very plainly that he (and presumably a large part of the parliamentary caucus which supports him) would seek to wreck the implementation of the major international policy which has crystallized in the Labour movement since the defeat of 1979. More: in any narrowly-hung parliament, this ploy would be successful. Labour could then only govern if it abandoned its policies. While it is quite proper to argue with Denis Healey, and to seek to win over his supporters, and whilst many will hope that the force of argument will ultimately persuade most of the defenders of Atlanticism, it requires a remarkable degree of self-deception to imagine that this fundamental disagreement can be simply papered over. It would be more realistic to see the present division of social democrats into European exitists and Atlantic remainders as a division of labour in the sense of Adam Smith—or as a simple hedging of bets. Those who go seek to ‘break the mould’ and establish a new capitalist managerial party; while those who stay seek to neutralize Labour’s response and sabotage its victories if that ever becomes necessary.
Any rigorous discussion of the tendency of the Labour Movement in Britain would need to go to the roots of Denis Healey’s commitment,
As the head of the International Department of Transport House during the immediate postwar years, Denis Healey played an absolutely crucial role in the rebirth of the Socialist International, and in the earlier organization of Comisco, which was the liaison committee which brought the various socialist parties into close enough relations with one another to facilitate this rebirth. But this delicate process of realignment did not take place in a vacuum, and was very far from being a simple restoration of the prewar links. In every European Labour Movement after 1945 there existed substantial groupings of socialists sharing independent international perspectives. The visible evolution of the Cominform turned around Zdhanov’s thesis of ‘two camps’ which had the immediate intention of solidifying Soviet influence and control in the countries of Eastern Europe. Heads rolled, and quickly: not only social-democratic heads, but all independent socialist heads and hundreds of alleged ‘national’ communist ones.footnote4 The effect of this policy in Western