It is a pity that I did not project the organizational work of the Society and its bureaus into the 1990’s and 1960’s (apart from the incorrect reference to pamphlets), thus giving the impression which, Anthony Wedgwood Benn has taken up, that my comments on page 81 covered the whole history up to the present. The last few years have shown some important changes, not least of which have been the more positive approach to development and the politics of the Third World which recent pamphlets like Tom Soper’s and the new issue of Venture indicate. The factual corrections contained in paragraphs 1, 2, and 5 of Benn’s letter are, of course, accepted: it is good to know that things were not as ad as they sometimes seem to have been.
But a number of points remain. My article did not say that Fabian and Labour policies were identical in all respects: merely that organizational and personnel links were very close, with the consequence that the party was rather slow to develop an independent contribution. Nothing that Benn says indicates the contrary: indeed all the politicians referred to in his paragraph 3 were prominent Fabians, and after 1945 several people resigned from the Society because ‘the Bureau merely seemed to be acting as a sort of Public Relations Officer for the Labour Government’s colonial ministers’ (letter quoted in Margaret Cole The Story of Fabian Socialism, p. 187). However inevitable the predicament, there is no doubt that the Bureau’s independence was compromised. The fact that the Labour Party had various sub-committees on colonial affairs prior to 1957 is a minor point: it would have been farcical if it had not. It would be useful to know whether any significant contribution to policy was made that did not emanate from the Colonial Bureau.
My remarks on Fabian economics specifically referred to lack of debate on the ‘relationship between economic development and political structure’. Of course the Society and the Bureau regularly produced pamphlets, articles and even books—Hinden’s Plan For Africa, for example—which discussed aspects of economics, but not, I think, the imperial economic framework or the important areas of theory involving British economic control of the colonies, the impact of economics on the political future of colonies, or the impact of imperialism on british economic and social behaviour. By the late 1950’s the position changed: Strachey, Balogh, and others beginning a reassessment,
And this is surely the point. Apart from a few interesting exceptions (Strachey’s End of Empire, for example), the Fabian contribution to the debate on colonialism and, latterly, development and political reorganization, has concentrated on individual issues, largely constitutional, moral or problem-orientated. Theories of social structure, or political philosophy, have generally been ignored in favour of the empirical. One does not ignore some of the contributions: man were valid, short-term expedients. But as I tried to show in my analyses of Hinden, Gordon Walker, Strachey and the New Colonial Essays—the few pieces of ‘theory’ that I could find—an unexamined philosophy was maintained by a combination of insularity and self-righteousness. It is a pity that Benn chooses to ignore all but one paragraph in my article and, in fact, to imply that because that paragraph contains inaccuracies the rest is of doubtful consequence. Whatever the position at present it is patently not true that the Fabians have never ‘looked upon themselves as tutors or patrons’—as most of the early publications show. If in the past it was difficult for British Socialists, implicated as they were in running an Empire from 1940 to 1951, to avoid being paternal, my article called for an immediate reassessment of attitudes. It is heartening to note that Venture, appearing almost simultaneously with nlr No. 22, made the same point, while the election of Anthony Wedgwood Benn to the chair of the International and Commonwealth Bureau is itself a promising development. One can only hope that the ensuing debate will be vigorous and self-critical, leading, as Venture notes, ‘to a fundamental re-examination of our political philosophy’.