For a decade in Britain, under Conservative rule, there was a recognizable and active Left. Now at last there is a Labour Government. But there is no longer, in the same sense, a Left. This paradox must be the starting-point of any consideration of the tasks confronting socialists today. Clearly, the most urgent need is to recreate an independent, combative Left, with its own goals and its own timetable. A condition of success in this is a critical assessment of the Left which has just disappeared. Without such an assessment, it is unlikely that anything durable will emerge in the search for a new strategy. For any future Left will have to learn the lessons of the past. These lessons concern not so much the mistakes of the Left in the Fifties, as its character. It is this which requires a precise and lucid analysis today.
There now seems to be a tacit agreement among socialists to bury the past. The temptation to maintain a discreet silence, to forget old quarrels, to look only towards the future, is understandable. But no attempt to consider the possibilities of the present will be viable unless it starts from some examination of the conflicts and contradictions which led up to it.
There is no need here to recount the course of events in the Labour movement over the past decade, after the fall of the Attlee government in 1951. The rise of Bevanism, the conflict over German Rearmament, the loss of the 1955 election, the accession of Gaitskell to the leadership, the adoption of Industry and Society, the first Aldermaston March, the defeat in the 1959 election, the fight over Clause Four, the bitter struggle over unilateralism, the final victory of Gaitskell, the publication of Signposts for the Sixties, unity in opposition to the Common Market, Gaitskell’s death—all these are fresh in everyone’s memory. Moreover, at this point of time, any full attempt to retrace and synthesize the intricate political struggles within the Labour Party would necessarily fail. However, looking back at the development of the party since 1951, certain permanent themes are clearly visible. It is in terms of them—and the conflicts they engendered—that the analysis sketched below will be made. The remarks which follow will inevitably be schematic. No subject is so contentious or difficult to seize. The focus of the analysis will be, not the political narrative of the period, but the sociology of its actors and the ideology of their interventions. In each case, extremely complex and variegated phenomena will be brusquely simplified and ‘essentialized’ for the purposes of discussion: the requirements of a short article make this inevitable. Within these limitations, what approximate balance-sheet can be drawn up of this anguished, parched decade?
Two problems have dominated the struggle for socialism in Britain from the turn of the fifties onwards: ‘affluence’ and the ‘cold war’. These issues have provided the deepest experience of the European Socialist movement in our time. By the early fifties, Keynesian capitalism had eliminated mass unemployment and allowed a steady increase in the material standard of living of the working-class. It thereby appeared to annul the positive case for socialism that had been made for 50 years by the working-class movement: that capitalism was unable to prevent cyclical hunger and destitution. Simultaneously, the Cold War allowed capitalist régimes everywhere to establish a powerful negative identification of socialism with the political order of the Soviet Union under Stalin—and to mobilize their populations for a suicidal military confrontation with Russia. Full employment and rising incomes rendered the classical socialist solutions—in particular social ownership of the means of production—redundant; the spectre of Russian ‘totalitarianism’ rendered them menacing. An insurmountable, double taboo fell on them. Its effect was to create an ideological barrier which blocked the Labour movement’s outward political advance and dried up its every inner impulse. Socialism was stopped dead everywhere in Europe, while the world slipped towards destruction.
This was the general historical context of the fifties. In Britain, it exploded a dramatic struggle within the party of the working-class, whose enigmatic aftermath we inherit today. What forces were at work? What were their ideas? What is their legacy?