‘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.’footnote1 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.

There is no fixed sociological essence, for instance, which such a party can be said to express in the ‘of’ of this dictum. If it expresses anything, it can only be the underlying historical situation of a class, in relationship to the rest of society, including its consciousness (true or false) of that situation. Such situations vary, from one society to another, and from one time to another, as both cause and effect of general social development; the element of consciousness in them fluctuates, perhaps, even more so. The question is then one of finding the factors of constancy in the situation.

So which constant elements of which historical situation are expressed in the 50-year old spirit and structure of the Labour Party? What social reality is actually mirrored in the ideas and sentiments of British Socialism?

In this regard, the most important feature of British Socialism—consonant with the whole British way of life—is that it always reflected a past situation. The modern Labour Party was constituted in 1918, and has preserved almost the same form up to the present. But this is not the past in question, this mere half-century of changeless tradition and ritual. The point is, rather, that this new-born party of 1918 itself reflected the spirit and situation of the working class and the intelligentsia as these had existed half-a-century before that: that is, it expressed their situation within the triumphant social machinery of British imperialism during the mid-Victorian decades after 1850.

By 1918, of course, this machinery was not working so well. The old imperial order had been under attack from without, and in crisis internally, for many years; it was already launched on the long, stubborn retreat which has lasted to the present day. The Labour Party was indeed a product of this crisis. The long revolutionary ferment of the years before 1914, decades of socialist agitation, a monumental increase in trade unionism, the visible and profound fissures within the ruling class, the great social shock and transformation of the First World War—all these had contributed to its formation. In it, the British working class sought for a new organization capable of meeting such great challenges in a new way. But from the outset its initiative was stultified. For the new body was cast in old attitudes, old ideas, in the assumptions which both workers and intellectuals had acquired during the previous century. From the beginning the tradition of all the dead generations had a quite decisive weight in Labour’s outlook—and indeed, in the very structure and intimate functioning of the new party. Thus, the Labour Party looked backwards at its birth. It was ancient while still in the cradle. It arose, forced from the day of its first consciousness to confront an epoch of imperialist decline, an epoch marked by endless crisis, stagnation, frustration and futility—and it confronted them with a philosophy and an organization rooted in the preceding era of imperial confidence and stability. What past was this, which acquired such a magic new lease of life in 1918?