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 of movements, some of which we may reasonably judge to have been ‘forward’, and some of which have not, in any sense, shared that direction. If we seek to determine which way ‘forward’ lies, it can presumably be agreed that it is in the development of demands for a fundamental and irreversible shift of the balance of wealth and power in favour of working people and their families. This involves fostering—however tentatively—hegemonic aspirations within the working-class movement. But since every labour movement only generates this kind of thrust on a basis of proven capacity to defend and advance the corporate interests of those it represents, a large part of its activity commonly does not directly lead to the growth of explicitly socialist goals. If there exist clear-headed socialist perspectives, widely shared, then actions which grow out of the narrowest defensive choices may be transformed in their meaning; but, by contrast, where large mass movements erupt without such perspectives, they frequently leave behind little tangible advance towards socialism. If sectionalism in trade unions were in fact as decisive a problem as Hobsbawm’s opening essay alleges, then the scope for ‘marches’ in diverse directions—forwards, backwards or standing still—would be all that much greater. We shall return to this problem, but first it is necessary to look at some of the crucial political issues which Hobsbawm’s original analysis omits.

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 win any credibility at all in that vast constituency to which it naturally addresses itself, if it sought to ignore the threat to all those marginal enterprises which are about to follow those already being blown away in the gale of eec competition.

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, which has been, over the three decades since the formation of nato, inextricably meshed into the perspectives of the Atlantic Alliance.footnote3 This commitment is in no way reducible to such positions as have subsequently been evolved in the Italian Communist Party, whose relatively recent recognition of nato emerged as the reluctant acceptance of an accomplished fact. Denis Healey, as a talented protégé of Ernest Bevin, a shaper of the postwar European settlement, was not merely a spectator, but an architect, of the process which solidified the two main blocs, and deliberately set out to extinguish any option for non-alignment, leave alone autonomous action by the working-class movement of Europe. This vast polarization halted Labour’s ‘forward march’ in the early ’fifties, and locked European socialism into stagnation and sterility for decades. The alibi that the postwar boom necessarily invalidated socialist choices will not stand up. On the contrary, if ever there were conditions in which peaceful change was optimally possible, and broadening prospects of radical reform could have been consensually accepted, it was during the long boom years that these conditions most evidently applied. But European socialists were divided into opposing orthodoxies which choked out all hope of basic structural change in the interests of working people.

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 Europe was to assist in stifling all ‘third force’ trends, and to consolidate the alignment of Western Europe with the United States. This alignment involved a very active, if much less visible, American input, and nowhere more than in the field of European labour politics. The Central Intelligence Agency, however, was only formed in the dawning years of the cold war, and a key role in the advocacy of the Western version of ‘two camps’ fell to Ernest Bevin in the foreign office and his assistants in the British Labour Party; particularly to Denis Healey.

During these years the split in the World Federation of Trade Unions was followed by splits in a number of national trade union centres, and there is strong evidence of outside intervention in this process. If there was good reason for unions to oppose Stalinist caucuses in the Federation, there were no defensible reasons for substituting them by cia patronage. That is why the many very damaging cia activities were all covert. But at the same time, there were also substantial external pressures on the political parties of the European left. These may be seen most clearly in the Italian socialist movement, where they ultimately succeeded not only in levering a nato-aligned Social Democratic Party into being, but also in weakening the support for autonomous policies in the main socialist organization at the same time.footnote5 After the Socialist International was reborn, the trend continued. Neutral voices were restrained and isolated. The establishment of the Bilderberg group in 1954, the development of ‘revisionism’ of the varieties of the German sdp’s Bad Godesburg programme and Crosland’s The Future of Socialism, were all part of the same process which saw the foundation of the Congress for Cultural Freedom as the cia’s response to Stalin’s intellectual ‘Peace’ movements. On both sides, this was the politics of cynical manipulation, and many of the participants involved were simply naive. Some, however, knew what they were at.

It would be absurd to rehearse this story in order to score points off the surviving individual contenders: the postwar alignment of Europe was a tragedy, in which good men fell into traps on both sides. Some later recovered better judgement. A nuanced history of European Labour would involve a need for charity and much complexity. Our point here is more basic: the development of socialist movements in Europe was arrested partly by direct subversion, partly by indigenous obstacles, but mainly by the emergence of a new world balance during this awful time, in which many formerly autonomous working-class movements of Europe were aligned and incorporated in the services of competing blocs, within the shade of whose rivalry there was no conceivable long-term possibility of advancing Labour’s control over the political process. Eastern oriented parties apologized for inexcusable atrocities and flatly denied the existence of Gulag. Western oriented parties progressively abandoned more and more of their social aspirations as they closed ranks to become part of a political-military system which was deeply hostile both to socialism, however libertarian; and to neutralism, however even-handed. The very concepts of left and right were, for the contending apparatchiks of both sides, subsumed into the geopolitical categories of East and West. Hobsbawm himself paid part of the price for this remorseless deterioration. So did an entire generation. And all this happened at a moment when the Labour Party in Britain began to live through the ‘thirteen wasted years’, losing successive elections, and yet maintaining very high levels of membership and apparent organizational vitality. This vitality ensured strong defence of the corporate interests of the working class, but it was confined within a national framework which had unobtrusively surrendered crucial powers to the institutions of the Western bloc, and, at the same time, and far more imperatively, surrendered the vision of any alternative destiny.