in “revolution”, Edward Thompson wrote, “that the point of breakthrough is not a narrow political concept; it will entail a confrontation throughout society between two systems, two ways of life. In this confrontation, political consciousness will become heightened. . .” This is one of the most important formulations of Out of Apathy: but what, I wonder, does it mean to the Aldermaston generation, or the overwhelming majority of the Labour Party’s rank and file? Most members of the Labour Movement keep their party or trade union affiliation for election times or periods of crisis. We have, then, to consider how this “confrontation” may be brought about. Certainly it would be easier if Her Majesty’s Opposition began to oppose with the vigour that the Tories did between 1947 and 1951: or if the Labour Party outside Westminster began to talk, preach and practice socialist ideas between General Elections. But here I am concerned primarily with the confrontation in ideas.
It is worth reminding ourselves of Gramsci’s criticisms of Bukharin, who only wanted “to attack the weakest people on their weakest points. . . in order to win easy verbal victories.” Gramsci continued,
If we take this as our bench-mark, we have indeed a long way to go. Nevertheless, even in Britain—so averse to theory, so addicted to the philosophy of common sense—there is a considerable, if scattered, tradition on which to build. This is especially true of historical studies: for each generation looks afresh at its past history, and the elaboration of contemporary attitudes and values is as clearly seen in historical revaluation as in any other field of intellectual effort.
The socialist historian, like the socialist intellectual in general, has two separate but closely related tasks; the first is to develop a wide ranging polemic, and the second is the enlargement and extension of knowledge in his own field. At the present moment, the greater need is for polemic, for in no other country are the mass of intellectuals so effectively assimilated within the liberal-conservative tradition. Of course, intellectual combativeness is not to be confused with shrill dogmatism. What is required is a continuing controversy in all fields, taking apart the judgments and values, ideas and facts of our society, explaining their meaning and relation to the whole. This is the intellectual “confrontation” which Edward Thompson is asking for.
My second point concerns some aspects of the politics of what Ralph Miliband has called “the transition to the transition”: that is, the growth in socialist ideas, and their organisation, in ways that effectively influence the Labour Movement. Historically, the Left has evolved two different approaches. The Marxists have usually organised themselves into tightly controlled, disciplined organisations, mostly—though not always—set up as independent political parties (e.g. The Social Democratic Federation before 1914, the Communist Party since 1920, the Socialist Labour League). The Marxist groups have generally been small in number, more than often dominated by sectarian ideas, and they have nearly always exhibited a marked bitterness to all other Left groupings. Generally, their political influence has been limited, but their indirect or cumulative effect has been considerable. Moreover, they have shown a signal devotion and self-sacrifice to socialism. But none of them has succeeded in overcoming their political isolation from the broad stream of the Labour Movement for any considerable period of time.